Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is It the Writers' Fault?

Ms Baroque puts her mind to answering Henry Porter's question, Where are our Orwell and Dickens? and comes down to the view that we writers had better start getting our political act together. In today's Guardian, however, playwright Anthony Neilson bemoans the fact that much of our theatre is downright boring due to a contemporary playwriting concern with issues at the expense of story-telling. Like Porter he seems to be blaming the writers themselves, but, as I have said on my other, writer blog, my hunch is that a lot of this is down to the pressures on playwrights from theatre policies. As I indicated in my last post here, writers are now under such marketing pressure - whether of the populist variety predominant in the publishing industry and our larger theatres, or the bureaucratic mission-statement sort still holding sway in our alternative theatres - that they are no longer always in control of subject matter or even of style.

I went to the theatre last night and when I lit this morning on Neilson's statement that theatres are too often failing in their unique task of providing 'live magic', I thought: Funny he should say that...

It was the Library Theatre press night for Chapter Two by Neil Simon. The lights went up on an immaculately designed set: the living rooms of two flats. Nineteen-seventies? New York? - don't ask, I neither really know or care: in spite of the suggestion of surrealism in the two simultaneous locations, it was so rigidly (and yet somehow surreally) naturalistic and indicating so ominously what was to come that the Bitch's heart sank and her mind stopped focussing right from the start. And it came. A long silence while the audience 'appreciated' the set and its emptiness of people and developed an expectation. And then, just as we had expected (no surprise, no magic) a middle-aged man came in with a suitcase, put it down, and laboriously went through the usual, only-to-be expected rituals of someone returning from holiday.

The Bitch's partner yawned noisily. The Bitch, furious, biffed him in the ribs. As an occasional actor, the Bitch knows only too well how attuned an actor is to the responses of the audience and its tiniest sounds, most particularly in those first moments on that first night... The Bitch's partner hissed: 'But it's so boring!' and the Bitch wanted to crawl under her seat.

But he was right: as Anthony Neilson says, Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. Neilson is talking in the main about over-consciously political or 'poetic' theatre, but the same objection can be applied to hackneyed naturalistic theatre. OK, so this was a period piece, you could say, and OK, much of last night's audience - which, at the risk of sounding ageist and classist, was middle-aged, even elderly, and middle class - seemed to enjoy this play a lot better than did the Bitch and her partner. But I'd say that the laughter was too comfortable, and far too automatic, and one could ask why a present-day theatre wants to put on such an unchallenging piece.

What Neilson is saying is pretty important: we do need to challenge, as Henry Porter has said, but we need to do it in ways that first and foremost transport and entertain. But then what do you do when the first priority of publishers and producers is to pander to the market which wishes not to be challenged?
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