Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What Is Theatre For?

Bit off my usual agenda for this particular blog (ie not prose fiction), but sometimes I really wonder: What is contemporary theatre FOR? (In connection with this, on my other blog today I ask what playwriting schemes are for.)

Last night I went to Manchester Library Theatre to see Too Close to Home by Rani Moorthy, produced by Rani's own theatre company Rasa, in association with the Library Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith. Now I like the Library Theatre, if only for old times' sake, and but there is a bit of a corporate dead hand over it all - the theatre space is often slightly cold (conjuring unmagical images, even as you seat yourself for the hoped-for magical experience, of the council boffins sending out memos about the heating to the poor old creatives) and the white wine is frankly crap. (God, I'm getting old. Time was when I dismissed people who cared about the wine as small-minded old lushes.)

I shouldn't moan though: more often than you'd expect in this ambience, the productions are inspired (last year's Much Ado, directed by Chris Honer, for instance), and there is something really homey about the way Chris, the theatre's Artistic Director, always mingles with the audience in his baggy trousers and pale jackets and with his truly twinkly smile. And I get free tickets to Press Night, for godssake (I'm not sure why: maybe because I was once a member of the Theatre Writers' Union, but more likely, in these more commercially-corporate times, because I once edited a glossy-looking magazine).

Rasa have become best known for Curry Tales, also co-produced with the Library Theatre, the one-woman show in which Rani told global stories while actually cooking on stage, and which was also apparently broadcast on Radio 4 (I'm not quite sure how that would have worked, but then they do it on The Food Programme all the time,) and for their on-stage fusion of western-style dialogue with Asian music and dance. In view of all this, and the fact that the advance publicity indicated that the play would portray the family of a young suicide bomber, Too Close to Home promised to be explosive in more senses than one.

Well, firstly, though I am accustomed to seeing plenty of theatre people I know at Press Night, THERE WAS ONLY ONE: playwright Rina Silverman, and she had paid. What did that mean? That all the others were so uninterested in this burning issue that they couldn't get up off their arses even for a free ticket? That usually they only come to see their friends on stage (few of them are Asian)? And WHAT DID IT MEAN ABOUT THE POWER, OR OTHERWISE, OF THEATRE, TO REACH ACROSS A CULTURAL DIVIDE?

And as for the play. Oh well. Groan. I am going to have to say it: it left me cold. COLD, COLD, about this BURNING ISSUE!!! Oh, did I get weary with the wordy, wordy, 'western-style' dialogue, and I couldn't hear a fair bit of it (either the blocking was poor or the actors were occasionally swallowing their words), and, because so much of it was relating and recalling and telling, this really mattered, and, although I was meant to I didn't find it funny, and oh god, I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND. I never felt that I had any real insight into the mind of the young suicide bomber, and if this was the point, that, just like the real families of suicide bombers, the family didn't either, then it JUST WASN'T ENOUGH FOR ME, not in a two-and-a-half hour play with all that investment of creativity and time and attention, and BECAUSE IT SEEMS TO ME THIS IS THE BIG THING WE REALLY ALL DO NEED TO UNDERSTAND. But even allowing for this, acknowledging, say, that the focus of the play was the emotional effect on the family, well, I didn't understand the family either: I didn't find that the religious passion of the elder brother resonated (and believe me, I know about religious passion), I had no idea why the father had gone mad, either in terms of fact/plot or in terms of the theme of the play (except, as the Partner of the Bitch said, in order to become sane at the end), I was completely stymied by the sexual attraction between the elder brother and his aunt, and as for the mother, the main part played by Rani herself: I just didn't get her, crying one minute, grinning her head off and playing the clown the next - the whole family, in fact, quarrelling then hugging and joking in a way which seems borrowed from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - but with nothing like the same conviction or forward momentum beneath the emotional see-sawing.

Hardly for one moment was I able to forget that these were actors acting on a stage. It's the worst criticism. Plays are meant to transport you, to take you into their worlds, and this play, with this subject matter, needed to do that especially. In one 'comic' moment, the mother is shouting at a neighbour for putting pork into her dustbin. She storms out to him, and in order to facilitate her exit, the huge fridge door becomes briefly an outside door. A line of Asian schoolgirls with their teachers gave a great spurt of laughter, a response I don't think was intended, and it was the only outright laugh the play got.

Oh dear. Was it me, was it the play, was it the theatre: I was physically cold, too, and had to put my leather jacket back on. All I know is, I wasn't transported, and that's what theatre has to do if it's to affect people's minds. We left the theatre quickly, as one does when one has been disappointed in a play, slightly deflated. When we got outside, the streets were glossy with rain and reflected lights, the Partner remarking with satisfaction, 'Typical Manc', and it lifted our spirits. We had already forgotten the leaflet for the play, featuring an intent young man carrying a rucksack through exactly the same night-time Westernised scene.

Oh, and half-way through the play The Partner of The Bitch fell asleep.
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