Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

On Passive Audiences, Contrary Views and the Lonely Reviewer

Theatre in Wales: Comment

Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Planet, Western Mail , Wales , January-02-16
Theatre in Wales: Comment by Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Planet, Western Mail The art is the thing, the talk it engenders its pale shadow. For those who were there the review is not much more than confirmation. I was at Robert Icke's “the Oresteia” a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square and could tell it was at least heading for the Best Director Award which it indeed went on to win. That it was also Lyn Gardner's production of the year was a nice confirmation. But for those who were not there the talk is the substitute, the stand-in as record and testimony in place of actual experience. Since that in turn affects policy and future capital allocation some sifting of the good talk from the less-than-good has a minor use.

A reviewer for Arts Scene in Wales dredged up the notion of the passive audience. This is a piece of groupthink which promotes the bubble of a view that artistic superiority is conferred upon an audience on two legs. It relies on confusion. Mistake metaphor for reality and the result is muddle. The fourth wall is a metaphor and not even a good one given that a wall for instance does not permit the free flow of sound and image.

Actors know whether an audience is passive or not. But actors in a climate of vaporous comment are the last group to be consulted. An audience pays attention or it doesn't. If it has rain dripping down its collars it is the actors who suffer. To return to “the Oresteia” it lasted three and a half hours and the attention was total. I asked an audience member from another performance how it had been and she said it had been the same. The distinction between an active and a passive audience as seated versus peripatetic is drivel.

It is in the nature of talk that it be disputatious. Maxie Swalinska is an excellent writer on theatre and she was somewhat apologetic for her non-conforming view on Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III”. Mike Bartlett is a writer of ferocious brilliance as evidenced by the reaction, and the awards, heaped on the production in Wales of “Contractions.” But with “King Charles III” she is right. It is great theatre but it muddles authorial achievement with production brilliance. The writing rests on a fundamental thematic lack of conviction. “Iphigenia in Splott” is Wales’ equivalent. This is a lone view but it is a pity that Sloane Square rather than Senghenydd Road got first dibs on “Violence and Son.” In part it is the Team Wales spirit, excoriated by the feisty Editor at Wales Arts Review. So a concluding line like “We can take it ’cos we’re tough, the lot of us” is not true at any human level. Toughness varies, actually it is a mask for a universal vulnerability. It is theatre as Stakhanovite posturing, which does not mean it is not powerful. But then that is talk. If it were all in agreement it would not be human. And another reviewer saw it as “perfect theatre: intelligent, moving, and horribly, horribly relevant.”

This lonely reviewer also diverged in reaction to “Parallel Lines.” It was a pity because the role of Dirty Protest in the theatre of Wales has been colossal. I passed on writing a review at the time mid-tour. The actors were terrific, but then they always are. But the writing was uneven and the direction looked as it had lost connection with the material. It was screeching for a dramaturg. All productions are lenses into the companies behind them and eight years old is a difficult time for all organisations.

The National Theatre closed its first chapter. Wales Arts Review published the view from the practitioner in the form of a tribute from Tim Price. As a member of the audience I wrote a summary farewell for this site. Looking back to the piece of September 7th it is verbose and baggy but it at least gets the quotations right, not least from 2014 “..high points of directorial and design bravura that audibly draw the audience’s breath…epic in conception and scale, doing what only national theatre can, and should, do.”

But then the Western Mail gave space for the company to write about itself. If ever there were a case of “Trust the tale, not the teller” this was it. Eighty percent of the work has been good to superb. The work that thrilled- “Little Dogs”, “Branches:the Nature of Crisis”, “the Village Social”- thrilled because great directors led great actors and musicians.

Yet the company goes on and on about digital. First the breakthrough use of digital is in London in pieces as different as “Privacy” and “Golem”. Anyhow the company is not even the best in Wales in using technology. Earthfall, the Llanarth Group and Ballet Cymru have used digital to superior artistic effect to name just three. There is also an irony in that the company places the most value on reviewers in old media, newspapers, and on reviewers in England.

Planet Magazine employed a writer for the sheep in Gwynedd who was also a farmer. Frankly her view is definitive, certainly over a visitor from London. As for “the Iliad” - I didn't see it- the view from Wales seems uniform- “great actors, great music and direction...well”. Whether that is right or wrong the view from London- not even that of a theatre critic- is regarded as hyperbolic in the extreme.

If there are alternative views from Wales I will happily add them and amend. Talk is after all nothing if not diverse. But to go full circle to the first sentence “the art is the thing”.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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