Theatre in Wales

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National Theatre audience deserving of more drama

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National Theatre of Wales- Love Steals Us from Loneliness , Hobo’s, Bridgend , October 20, 2010
At National Theatre by National Theatre of Wales- Love Steals Us from Loneliness The McMaster Report on the Arts in January 2008 was harsh on theatre's use of new media, or rather lack of use. National Theatre of Wales has won praise, rightly, for its innovations in communication and audience interaction. But as the barons of Hollywood find, often not to their liking, there is a downside. It is not just the innate anarchy and lack of control. The internet never forgets and the law of unintended consequences looms large.

The company’s seventh production offers a unique marketing case study. It is not just the sheer weight of it but its switchback decentred nature. Two productions back a single lucid exposition in several parts was written by one participant alone. The rest was silence.

November 5th 2009 a major commission is announced via an internet feed. The commission is to do what theatre does uniquely best, to anatomise a subject of deep public concern. “I don’t think you can shirk from the big issues” runs the later accompanying PR. (Although it might be asked “Who does?”)

But then many months on and it slips out the brief has altered. Something else is in its place. It is possible then to read a clear bifurcation in the communication flow. Signal to noise ratio is a fundamental in communication theory. The noise is a flood of effervescence. Yet small service is done when the word “brilliant” is thrown about so regularly by production insiders. A tighter, tauter language of observation serves a venture much better. For all the rah-rah surface noise the signal that emerged was one of some nervousness.

Sub-text speaks. The adjective “passionate” is a piece of short-hand, that an authenticity of emotion will take precedence over cool workmanship. “Provocative” likewise is code, not much more these days than a signifier for profane language or sexual display. “Poetic” is indicator that the audience should not expect linguistic continuity or unity.

A casting call asks for characters that do not appear in the play. That cannot help but be a signal of disorder. The timing of the composition is happily splashed across the public domain.

“Love Steals Us from Loneliness” is not a drama. It is a situation. “Evaluate a piece by the light of its intentions” was the plea. But art, its form and substance, is its purpose. It is hard to discern any thematic or formal integrity. This is largely attributable to structure. A half-hour first act is a protracted two-hander. Act Two, far longer, is a stop-start staccato of monologues, one-on-one dialogues, and occasional song.

Ultimately reaction rests on personal aesthetic preference. However, this choice of form and its limitations have long been heralded. The author’s debut was a firecracker of a first play but Lyn Gardner of the Guardian still commented. “It sometimes seems that we are breeding a generation of playwrights who might once have tried their hand at the short story or novel, but who now think that end-to-end monologues constitute theatre. They can and do, but it is a partial theatre.” Alex Carolan described in “Ghost City” in 2004 “a tendency…where characters tell rather than show us how to feel.”

Late on in the second act there is an attempt to evoke the nature of parental devotion. The situation lacks distinction and theatre in any case works by enactment not narration. Nine-tenths of the tension and indeed interest in stage language is what falls between. Jeremy Kingston of the Times in 2004 commented on the limitation of the form. “But what they say still comes across as internal commentary, where they account for the pain of the world to themselves alone.”

Should National Theatre be offering monologue? It has an honourable place but it’s the province of the studio, it’s at Chapter, in Edinburgh. The audience for National Theatre is deserving of drama. Even more so when the objective is to win a new audience- the sheer rhythm of physical movement is more compelling to watch.

The language is much loved and feted. It is true that that there is an ease, unprecedently so, now between the sexes. It is true also that ease with physicality does little to ease the confusions of love. But teenage language is laced with levity. A seventeen-year old character has the line “penetrate a bumhole with a throbbing bell-end”. It sounds more the product of a scatological imagination than that of an authentic vernacular. Another teenager’s “I know I’m not good enough for you” is second hand. The technique of an occasional jolt into eloquence is lacking in conviction. “A rule is the opposite of random.” “The memory isn’t enough to move them any more.”

The production does not fit obviously into the company's admirable first year aesthetic of a theatre of geographical exploration. The physical texture of Bridgend- prison, hospital, Bosch, Coity, Ogmore- is absent. In place of civic or social fabric, or teenage habitats of cafe, college or skateboard park, there are namechecks- Facebook, Christopher Eccleston.

The publicity states a timespan of several decades. That is dramatically interesting. The current hit “Clybourne Park” divides between two sequences fifty years apart. Act One, courtesy of a current film reference, is set in 2010, which means the later action must be in the future. If it is to be set in 2050 an audience needs pointers of time and place. If it is not delete it from the promotion.

It might be argued that this was a script for the young people of Bridgend. But National is national and the young people of Glamorgan are as deserving of a drama as any audience. “Toy Story 3” by analogy is the best-scripted film, best-directed film of the year. Pixar’s creative architect, John Lasseter, has no segmented audience. “Basically anyone who is breathing” he says.

The costume given to Catrin in the long cemetery scene pays small attention to the temperature of an 31st October night. The character must either shiver or put on a coat. This is not a quibble. It is the rigour that writing for theatre calls for. “Art should be hard as nails” was the phrase much liked by Henry James.

The acoustics of the venue were not kind to the voices of the cast. A paragraph in the programme was headed “Bridgend in Picutres.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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