Underway: the early stages of a seven month long programme of short plays to be written, produced and presented at the rate of one a month, culminating in an omnibus edition in the seventh month.
Dash Dash Dash will open at the Battersea Arts Centre in London on October 15th. I will write a 25 minute play, direct it, open it, watch it then write another one. I will do this six times. The plays will stand alone, they will not be episodes in a serial but when joined together they will be greater than the sum of their parts. (Their parts will be okay too.)
In an earlier post, ‘I, Healer‘, I suggested that theatre performance composed in an incoherent language might be suitable for the depiction of an incoherent world. When narrative in the real world comes to be viewed with the suspicion that it’s a cover-up of some sort, the alternatives are stark: nostalgic reversal or the homeopathic dose. While the strategy of the dilute dose is risible in its ‘medical’ context, there is something to be said for its application to the business of artistic representation. Just what might it constitute? A paradox begins to arise wherein we find ourselves effortlessly edging towards naturalism and mimesis again: the depiction of disorder by a vocabulary of disorder.
If all is disordered then the disordered depiction of it amounts to naturalism. Or it does if all that is to be presented is the appearance of disorder. If a vocabulary of disorder is employed then it will, by definition, be framed within an aesthetic of disorder – this is the language of the action movie or a play about war or tempestuous marriage. It will be perfectly recognisable. On the other hand, if a disordered vocabulary is used then there might be a chance.
The problem is that it’s seething, pervasive disorder that requires attention rather than the intermittent disruption of otherwise serviceable narratives. The current panoramic disorder is not there to be faithfully reproduced. It compels a reassessment of the means whereby it is to be represented. The imposition, for example, of narrative onto such fracture and confusion seems at best rather sweet and at worst forlornly misjudged.
Audiences are not gagging for these hot new fragments and fractures of which we speak. The unassailable popularity of bonneted drama and humiliating competitions on the television suggests, in both cases, that a subterranean current of hysteria is a must-have component of contemporary cultural consumption. Were the conventions of the bonnet and the rules of the competitions dissolved then the hystericised mechanisms beneath would be revealed and, presumably, found irresistible. In my dreams.
The avant-gardes have been here before, of course. In 1961, Martin Esslin in his book ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ wrote about a new sort of theatre that he had identified: ‘If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterisation and motivation, these are often without recognisable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning or an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manner and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.’
Esslin indicts the usual suspects in his analysis: the decline of religion, the collapse of faith in ‘progress, nationalism, and various totalitarian fallacies’ in the aftermath of the Second World War. He quotes Camus: ‘A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.’
Almost forty years later, in 1999, Hans-Thies Lehmann published ‘Postdramatic Theatre’, seen in some circles as framing the theatrical products of our new century as convincingly as Esslin had for postwar drama up to the 60s. Among the many characteristics of the new theatre that Lehmann examines is a decentring of the text, wherein it is no longer the sole determinant of the expressive elements around it. He also comments on the intermittent, deliberate suspension of the closed fictive world of the performance that allows some element of ‘the real’ to break into the experience.
In the Dash Dash Dash shows I shall attempt to carry on the good work by insisting that six short shows, unrelated in terms of narrative, setting, milieu, pace, tone or style can somehow constitute the parts of a whole. We’ll see.
The marquees have been taken down and the grass can get its breath back after a month’s coverage. The trestle tables for communal meals at Production Village have been folded up. The trucks are hauling the generators out of the grounds. The contractors are craning the pontoon units out of the lake. The plug has been pulled on the mobile walk-in fridge. The bridge over the ditch has been removed. Over 140 cast and crew have gone home. The girls who played the five Alices are already back at school. The show retreats to boxes and hangers and shelves but we have some very good reviews to boast about, particularly here, here and here.
In the course of extending the script of ‘Dining with Alice’ I was also entrusted with maintaining a blog called ‘Ruminations’ on Artichoke’s dedicated but now extinct Alice site. Now that the show is over, some of the less production-specific posts from that site have been imported to this one.
The website (from 2011) mentioned below is extinct but some of its contents will be found in ensuing Strength Weekly Posts.
I’m working on a large-scale outdoor show called ‘Dining with Alice’, which opens at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in May. The show places its patrons in a country house garden where they eat a meal whilst encountering characters from Alice in Wonderland. It was first presented at the Salisbury Festival in 1999 and is being extensively refurbished for its imminent Spring revival. Directed by Hilary Westlake, with text by Strength Weekly’s CEO, writer David Gale, music by Frank Millward and produced by Artichoke (the company that brought ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’ to London), it can be examined here. On the dedicated ‘Dining with Alice’ website I’m writing a regular blog called ‘Ruminations’ and a column called ‘Aliciana’ which collects quotes from hither and thither that illustrate some of the debates around the Carroll/Dodgson/Alice nexus.
In the course of the curtain call for ‘A Dog’s Heart’ – Simon McBurney’s sellout ENO opera based on a Bulgakov novel – the chorus performers take their massed bow first, followed by more prominent performers and so on. One of these latter, who has a small part as a stout well-to-do lady, crosses the stage in her character walk then, pausing to take the bow, hitches up her skirt hem a few inches and drops it, as if coquettishly but wishfully advertising her sexagenarian sexiness. A panto moment. But this is the curtain call. The show is actually over.
A few performers later, the soprano playing the maid Zina prefaces her bow with a couple of wacky calisthenic moves that have earlier served to signal her character’s ditziness. Finally, the star of the show, the tenor Peter Hoare, having played Sharikov the dog-man, scampers on and pretends to lunge doggily at the performer next to him in the lineup.
Why is the show still going on? The idea is that when you reach the last page of the script or, in this case, the score, you stop. There is a lighting change which facilitates a clear view of the performers’ faces and bodies, which have been divested of all the qualities of their fictional roles. If we are pleased we clap and, by so doing, please the performers. Then people leave the theatre.
It’s even worse at ‘Billy Elliot’. At the end the lights change, the cast takes its bows but then the entire troupe suddenly becomes inexplicably loveable, regardless of their erstwhile showtime qualities. This is not, however, an opportunity to glimpse their unadorned workaday charm. They have assumed new characters! Who proceed to deliver a right old knees-up replete with teeth, smiles and the obligatory ‘nimble turn’ executed by the oldest member of the cast!
Let it go, why don’t you? The curtain call has an important ritual function. It reseals the envelope between a fictional world and the everyday, thereby contributing to the reinforcement of the psychological skill known as ‘reality testing’. We must assume, given the leakages I have described, that the premium placed on such skills has been significantly reduced. We may now feel safer in imagining that Zina the Maid is downing a glass of vodka in The Salisbury in St Martins Lane, just up from the Coliseum, before returning to her flat in either Maida Vale or below stairs in her employer’s house in Moscow, depending on the levels of hybridity in which we choose to immerse these homunculi who hail simultaneously from fiction, our imaginations and the lives of everyday theatre folk.
It’s a harsh thing, the end of a show. As post-carnival suicide figures in Brazil attest, life can suddenly seem even drabber when the house lights come up. The possibility of magically maintaining a fiction in the eye of the hurricane of the everyday is detectable in fairy-tales wherein the woodcutter who helped out a disadvantaged goblin will be given three wishes, only to squander them on a succession of slapup feeds. As Jack Zipes has pointed out, the benighted mortals of the forest do not wish for social change that might alleviate their feudal misery because they cannot conceive of such a scenario, even in their most magical dreams. When a show with its heart in a progressive place, such as ‘Billy Elliot’, is hijacked by the sentimentality of West End actors who refuse to go home then not only is everyday life betrayed but it is as if the political aspirations embedded in the work are actuated and thereby instantly depotentiated. The distance between fiction and reality is collapsed thereby neutralising any leverage inhering in the fiction.
Chastising the actors for their indulgence is beside the point. It may be that they sense that their refusal of ritual will be warmly received in a climate in which the only defence against a predatory reality lies in chronic, concerted fabulation.