Last week, I saw two performances in London. One was the kind of show I tend to love and generally want to see much more of at home in Toronto: a contemporary staging of an old play (Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal); the other was the kind of show I tend to avoid because I, curmudgeon that I am, generally feel that we have far too many like it: a brand new play staged for the first time, by the theatre that commissioned it (Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road). School for Scandal was directed by Deborah Warner, and I was reasonably excited to see it, not having read any reviews; London Road by Rufus Norris, whom I probably should have heard of but hadn’t, and I only decided to go because of the almost unreasonably gushing critical response. School for Scandal was at the Barbican, a space I sort of like; London Road at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, an interesting enough space but equipped with the most uncomfortable and cramped seats available for money anywhere outside struggling pub theatres. Predictably, perhaps, I absolutely loved London Road and was left rather underwhelmed by School for Scandal.
The same week, Alexis Soloski published a post on the Guardian theatre blog asking whether “It is time for theatre to leave ‘avant garde’ behind” — whether the language of radical innovation was still the most apt discourse for contemporary theatre criticism, and whether it is still productive to “speculate about what fresh spaces, forms and structures drama can charge into,” to “worry that perhaps there’s actually nothing new under the stage lights.”
I found it both strange and slightly depressing that “making it new” — not only Ezra Pound’s (belated, in 1934) battle cry, but described as the quintessential Modernist program by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch and recently documented by Jed Rasula as a key concept of the European modernist avant garde — should still be a possible hallmark of cutting edge theatre in 2011. Surely making things new has been old hat for decades now? The characteristic postmodern strategy is not innovation, but recombination — the sample, the remix, bricolage, forms that acknowledge that everything has already been said or thought and can now only return in differently arranged, parodied, pastiched guises (though that strategy was always part of the Modernist arsenal as well, of course). Which is why it is so surprising, and a little dismaying, to read a twenty-first century critic like Soloski write things like this:
Personally, I can’t think of the last time I saw a show that really seemed truly new and boundary-breaking to me. I can think of scores that were provocative, joyful, inspired, transformative, and that’s just as good as something new – better maybe.
Of course. But what does it say about the English-speaking theatre that critics expect, and artists might strive to deliver, the “new” — both still locked in a long-in-the-tooth High Modernist paradigm other arts have long left behind? (Put differently, why should Soloski’s position be in any way controversial?)
Theory and Practice: Back to the Shows
The conflicting modernist and postmodernist aspirations of contemporary theatre (or theatre criticism) are illustrated pretty well by the two productions I saw in London last week.
London Road, in some senses, may be regarded as a late triumph of the make-it-new paradigm: it has generally been described as unlike anything else, a totally innovative piece of theatre. At the same time, the play also quite deliberately denies all claims to originality, made up as it is of verbatim, often artless, even clumsy, quotations from interviews with Ipswich locals. The writer here has been reduced (if that is the right word) to an arranger, a shuffler of verbal building blocks. And the actors, too, are not simply caught up in the dialectic of originality and derivativeness that is an essential aspect of most theatrical performances (the tension between actors’ agency and playwright’s control), but find themselves additionally beholden to the “real” people’s voices they reembody and reinvent as they play their parts.
School for Scandal, on the other hand, presents itself on the surface as pure postmodernism. It is an old play restaged and remade; eighteenth-century dialogue and, mostly, dress are juxtaposed and refracted through a thoroughly twentyfirst-century frame, stage, and soundtrack. The production seems designed to forestall immersion, it appears keen not to allow us to believe the illusion that we’re watching actual eighteenth-century characters. However, in its overt sensibility and methods, if not in its affect, the production is more indebted to Modernist than contemporary models: Brechtian signs announce scene numbers and settings, actors change into new costumes on stage and carry around placards with quotations from the play, flats fly down only halfway, stay at an angle, don’t unfold properly. It’s all very inventive and all very familiar. Worse, it’s largely window-dressing. Not only is it unclear what all the would-be avant-garde gestures are supposed to achieve, they also frame what is, at heart, an extremely conventional production of Sheridan’s play, performed by actors whose characters could as happily have inhabited a staging devoid of all the alienating manoeuvres. In other words, the production neither works as a Modernist, Brechtian enterprise, since the performances, and (as far as I could tell) the audience’s reaction to them, are barely affected by the efforts to make it new; nor does it work as a postmodern staging, since the assemblage of old and new bits and pieces doesn’t amount to anything coherent, exciting, or intriguing enough to make sense — or to frustrate our efforts to make sense of it all in interesting ways.
London Road should have been, on the face of it, an exercise in alienation: not only is the musical inherently a less than realist genre, setting commonplace characters and their unremarkable words to music also seems only likely to increase the artificiality. And yet those figures emerge with a surprising degree of tangibility, as credible Suffolk townspeople. This may have something to do with the sheer ordinariness of their costumes and most of the sets (dominated by tea urns, orange stacking chairs, and gloriously kitsch hanging baskets), it may have to do with the actors’ commitment to their characters (even as they created those characters by entirely artificial means), but in any case it produces an unusually complex interplay of empathy and alienation.
There is no such interplay in School for Scandal. For one thing, what the production brings to Sheridan’s text is already recognizable and comfortingly familiar, both as pop-cultural phenomena and as theatrical gestures. Blasting Daft Punk and having actors strut like models before the play proper begins and during scene breaks may shock a few blue-rinsers but can surely only delight or bore most modern audience members. It doesn’t help that the publicity materials and the production itself take more than a few cues from Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. But even if these strategies still worked as defamiliarizing efforts, they still wouldn’t do much to the play in Warner’s production, since they’re hardly ever allowed to interfere with it. Sheridan’s comedy sits within the postmodern frame like a slightly dusty painting, still charming, still entertaining enough, but almost entirely unaffected by what goes on around it. The colorful insults we first see painted on placards appear, are spoken, and pass — not unnoticed, exactly, but neither estranged nor foregrounded in any particularly illuminating or striking fashion. “Empathy” is obviously not the point of the play anyway, but some sort of identification or investment may be, some degree of taking Sheridan’s figures for more than mere representations of particular social positions or habits. One might expect a production like Warner’s to hinder or complicate such a response, and the frame and its insistent display of the theatre’s fiction-making apparatus appear designed to keep the audience at arm’s length. But the direction — what the actors do and how they go about their business — runs entirely counter to any such efforts. Michael Bilington’s review in the Guardian laments that “the striving for contemporary relevance wildly distorts character and denatures Sheridan’s comedy.” If only!
Formalist Joy: Making the Um Ummy
Beyond the (ultimately perhaps irresolvable) question of what now counts as avant garde, both shows also got me thinking about the relationship between script and performance, and about the importance of language in modern theatre. To me at least, the Barbican production’s refusal to allow text and staging to engage with each other made both look worse. The staging struck me as cliched and slightly manic, while Sheridan’s text seemed outdated without having anything else to offer in place of relevance. Mostly (and this may admittedly reflect my own prejudices) I missed Jonson or Middleton’s language — watching plots and characters of the past seems more worthwhile and pleasurable if the words that create them command my interest. That said, an all-out conventional staging of School for Scandal may not have had this disappointing effect, bypassing, as it could, any claims to or need for relevance, and offering itself instead as a potentially entertaining throwback to a particular moment in the history of theatre. As it is, however, Warner’s production raises expectations and makes claims to which neither it nor Sheridan’s play can live up.
At the same time, the very drabness of London Road‘s language became a source of aesthetic pleasure for me. It’s not that the arrangement and the musical score aestheticized the everyday, exactly — the words remained commonplace and unremarkable in and of themselves. But there is a strange beauty in the recurrent appearance of ums and ahs, of y’knows and “things” as key metrical elements. And metre, or rhythm at least, is key to this play: even if Blythe merely rearranged verbatim quotations, she had to do it in a way that allowed Cork to set them to music, finding or creating more or less regular stress patterns in her subjects’ testimony. It’s difficult to describe the effect of this discovery of the poetic in the common, of the aesthetic in the artless, but it struck me as the most moving aspect of both play and production. Well beyond what London Road may have to say about community (the topic most critics, in strangely uncritical fashion, have been preoccupied with) or trauma, about morality or class, about Ipswich or its inhabitants, it impressed me in its focus on form, and in its formally rigorous attention to the formless, the inchoate, even the inept. Surprisingly, to me, this “verbatim” play was far more verbally pleasurable than Sheridan’s craft and polish.
I probably should not be surprised by this, though. After all, I’m completely incapable of leaving Shakespeare behind, ever, and some of Shakespeare’s most exciting moments arise precisely out of such attention to the willfully unpolished, the incoherent, the barely verbal. Take Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale:
Praise her but for this her without-door-form,
Which on my faith deserves high speech, and straight
The shrug, the ‘hum,’ or ‘ha,’ these petty-brands
That calumny doth use — Oh, I am out —
That mercy does, for calumny will sear
Virtue itself — these shrugs, these ‘hum’s’ and ‘ha’s’,
When you have said she’s goodly, come between
Ere you can say she’s honest. (2.1.71-78)
The text may be difficult here, but its difficulty is not an effect of hightened poetic or literary language, but of syntactic and logical breakdowns characteristic of spoken language. I could go on — take Othello, take Macbeth; take Malvolio! — but won’t. My point isn’t that there’s “nothing new under the stage lights” (because THE BARD has always-already said and done it all). It’s merely that the kind of thing I found so fresh and exciting in London Road was possibly fresh and exciting at other moments in theatrical (and/or literary) history as well, and may have been as “avant garde” or “experimental” or “cutting edge” then as, differently, it is now. Or not. It would be quite easy to put this, again, in Modernist terms, via, say, Viktor Shklovsky and the aesthetic imperative to make the everyday newly visible or tangible, to “make the stone stony” (yada yada). Or not. I don’t think London Road gave me a new perspective on Ipswich English, nor did it make the um ummy. But it did make me wonder about what counts as poetic now. And that, I think, is a good thing.
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