Theatre in Wales

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Rimini Protokoll/ National Theatre of Wales- Outdoors , Aberystwyth , April 4, 2011
At National Theatre by Rimini Protokoll/ National Theatre of Wales- Outdoors “Outdoors” has two parts. At nine-fifteen at night the audience- only twelve are permitted – is allowed to enter the Saint David’s Club in Aberystwyth's Eastgate. In a large and comfortably furnished first floor room twenty-one members of the community choir are in a semi-circle singing.

The song is a spiritual with a melody of a heart-soaring beauty. The harmonics sound to this unmusical ear sublime. Their new audience has only fifteen minutes to listen to this gorgeous sound. This is the closing part of the choir’s weekly two-hour rehearsal.

The first part of “Outdoors” lasts one and a half hours. It entails looking at tiny screens, moving in isolation around the same small knot of town centre streets, listening to what sound like unrehearsed, spontaneous utterance and reminiscence.

The makers of the films have been free during daylight hours to enter buildings like the town's lovely period library. The audience for “Outdoors” in the night air must stand outside. It is difficult to discern any aesthetic content or intention in this event. The emotional response therefore generated in this member of the audience is quite predictable.

“Outdoors” shares some elements in common with “Soul Exchange”. Firstly, the technical standard is uneven. I stayed after the event for a conversation of great conviviality and enjoyment with the choir members. But the editing of the video is of a poor standard. It is easy for visitors to Aberystwyth to lose direction.

Secondly, the event- the word “production” does not really fit- aspires to an audience that is modest in size. In January two batches of two dozen taxis times five passengers equalled two hundred and forty, plus maybe a few pedestrians.

“Outdoors”, billed to last a year, has shrunk to term time only. That is a total audience of three hundred and sixty. A week ago, “Beachy Head”, a multi-media show by Analogue Theatre achieved this audience in Aberystwyth on just one date on a long tour. Every public body from the Scillies to the Shetlands is being stressed for value for money. It is difficult to discern why this visiting troupe from Berlin should be exempt.

As with “Soul Exchange” no programme is made available to the customer. A programme is not just an opportunity to make a bit extra for the venue or producers. It is the way in which artists identify themselves as well as being a window to make comment on the context, or the intention, of a piece of work. In Aberystwyth the identities of the creators are obscure and the motivation unclear.

There are, however, public statements, this time in the Telegraph, which have to stand in as a statement of artistic intent. “In the Nineties, it looked as if nobody wanted to go to the theatre anymore because film was seen as so much better” states one. This is wrong. It was the decade of Sarah Kane, of Jez Butterworth, of Anthony Neilson. Even if the speaker was uninformed about theatre in Britain, “Shopping and F----ing” played in the company’s native Berlin, and “Gododdin” and many other productions were staged in Germany.

“But what has happened over the past five or ten years is that more people go to new forms of theatre and not so many go to the cinema.”This is a riduculous assertion. Woody and Buzz, Shrek, Wolverine, Spiderman and dozens more are global brands. Their audience out-strips that for theatre ten thousand-fold.

“Theatre-makers are realising that the essence of their art is not about admiring the virtuosity of actors.” Personally, I cannot be alone in that I leave the sofa and the digital screen to see actors. I am in awe of their art, their industry, their energy.

Lastly, say the makers of “Outdoors”, “it’s not about watching someone else’s dream, it’s about making the dream together”. When metaphors are allowed to run amok the first casualty is clear sense.

However, these are surface expressions. The deeper division is the underlying principle. After “the Soul Exchange” the director believed in, and congratulated herself publicly on delivering, “a complex, multi-layered project.” The toxicity of management jargon is everywhere but in theatre, please spare us. Customers pay, they witness a production. In this case the phrase “Reality Theatre” indicates some semantic confusion.

Theatre is part of the spectrum of reality. In the case of a specialised website like this I would imagine that theatre to quite a good slice of an individual’s reality. Rather than being two words in apposition one word is a sub-set of the other. The concept is a instance of category error.

The word “reality” may perhaps be meant to stand for the quotidian, the everyday. The transformation of the everyday into art is as valid a subject as any, indeed “heaven in a grain of sand”. It suits the visual arts or the lyric poem which are static in space and time. It is less suitable for performance which exists as motion across both space and time.

The aesthetic fallacy in “Outdoors” appears to be that all human experience is equivalent; all is fit for recall. The average human life encompasses eighteen billion events that can be described as discrete. The brain with one hundred billion potential synaptic connections could recall them all. It sensibly opts to select and retain what it autonomously deems significant. Borges wrote a story about just this, “Funes the Memorious” about the nightmare of a man for whom all memory is equivalent.

Michael Blakemore in his autobiography “Arguments with England” has a passing comment on Kenneth Tynan: “he asked something very straightforward from the theatre- the opportunity to feel passionately.” That is not the intent with “Outdoors”.

In truth there is a third part to “Outdoors”. Half an hour is spent in preparation and waiting. ID needs to be shown, signatures given, a gender and age form completed. Another form is related to audience research. “How relevant is this to the people of Wales?” it asks. Ceredigion has the smallest population of any county in England and Wales, but it has a theatre audience and a catchment area of sixty miles. The audience for 22nd March included three theatre professionals, at least three performance researchers; the remainder performance students.

Dominic Dromgoole has done as much as anyone in the last generation to drive theatre in Britain to new heights of accomplishment. In his book “The Full Room” he writes “audiences are the final arbiters…since they either attend or they don’t, and without them theatre is invalid.”

It is right that scholarship should pursue, analyse, write about performance. But it should follow after the event, rather than be a concurrent presence. “Outdoors” looks as though its objective, which is to delight a live audience, has been foregone in order to provide material for the conference address and research article.

Art, its purpose, its method, is dialogue. It is a dialogue that has no end. “Wales needs a critical culture” is a refrain heard again and again. It occurred at the symposium at Brecon “What is the future for theatre in Wales?” on 14th March. The Rimini Protokoll website contains no information other than the public facts about this production. To further the dialogue they should be invited to participate, to lay out, in plain language, the reactions and emotions that it was their intention to arouse in their public.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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