Sunday, 28 August 2016

I’m not just talking about books…

Before I say goodbye to – and (attempt to) let go of – the RSC’s sensational Making Mischief festival (all the photographs of which are by Richard Lakos), there are a few things I need to get off my chest. But first – and I should probably give them their own page: so that I can continually refine them, formalize them, and then link to them… rather than keep on reiterating them – a reminder of the Bardic Principles of Theatre and Art (for want of a better moniker):

I appreciate that many simply go to the theatre to be entertained…. I don’t.
     I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!
     And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have experienced some of the greatest plays ever written, performed by some of the greatest actors ever born…. And my life would be so much poorer for that lack; and I would not know that, in the blackest depths of my despair, there could be – there was – salvation. So I will – I must – continue to go: to discover yet more reasons for going. And – of course – to be entertained…!

I would like to supplement this with some words (“yet more reasons for going”) shared yesterday – before the final shows of Always Orange and Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier – by Laura Howard (who is (wonderful) in both plays):

When we create or appreciate art, we set free the spirit trapped within. That is why art arouses such joy. Art – whether skilfully executed or not – is the emotion, the pleasure of expressing life as it is. Those who see art are moved by its passion and strength, its intensity and beauty. That is why it is impossible to separate life from art. Political and economic developments may seem to dominate the new, but culture and education are the forces that actually shape an age, since they transform the human heart.
– Daisaku Ikeda: Wisdom for Modern Life (27 August 2016)

I may not agree with everything stated here: especially the words “joy”, “pleasure” and “beauty” (I think their antonyms are equally valid; and perhaps crucial…). And I do not, for one moment, expect everyone who sees art to be moved by it (see above). But I do concur with the general proposition.

When I wrote my original “principles” – almost a manifesto – I was discussing “theatre as therapy”: because of my current war with depression and PTSD (which I am beginning to win, one tailgating truce at a time…). And I felt ‘safe’ in doing so: because I am undergoing formal treatment. However, it occurred to me on Wednesday, at my second viewing of Always Orange, that the play itself contains several ‘trauma triggers’ – although I accept that these are so specific that there will be very few people watching that might be affected by them. This is not to say, though, that those, such as myself, who suffer from PTSD with other origins – but who aren’t being treated – won’t be similarly disturbed.

This is from my original review:

I described Always Orange as “devastating… important and necessary theatre”…. Having written twice, recently… about “theatre as therapy”, this was probably the toughest (but most rewarding) of the three plays to sit through, for me: its depiction of post‑traumatic memory searingly (and, in my case, tear-jerkingly, shoulder-shudderingly) accurate – and perfectly portrayed by the mesmerizing Ifan Meredith, as Joe (“a British man”).

Having seen audience members turn a funny colour when Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out; yet laugh at the decapitation of Cloten – an act that would seem horribly contemporary… – it is obviously impossible to predict how people will react. I myself tittered at the warning sign outside King Lear, at the Royal Theatre in Northampton – “During this performance there will be: Smoke, Gun Shots, Smoking, Flashing Lights, Strobes, Loud Bangs” – because of the absence of any mention of the frequent violence, and the resultant copious amounts of blood that are spilled. And yet, if there is one Shakespeare play that I would not venture near, it is Titus Andronicus…! (But I say this, of course, having been forewarned by both reading the text, and by others’ experiences.)

Before you have a go at me for being over-sensitive – although this is surely a state we all want to be in, if we’re going to be moved to the max…? – I’m not demanding EastEnders‑type “If you have been affected by issues…” paragraphs printed in red ink on the front covers of programmes; nor for leaflets for the Samaritans to be handed out at every show. (I do know that this would be impractical. Mebbe.)

What I am asking – as an extension of considering the physically disabled, when designing access policies – is that we consider how the power of theatre affects individuals – especially those with mental health problems – in different ways: hoping that, firstly (and accepting that there is a suspension of disbelief for many), well-directed and -produced drama will, in most cases, be beneficial in some way. Secondly, though – where theatre deliberately sets out to provoke: as the four plays that made up Making Mischief so successfully did… – we (both creators and consumers) need to be prepared for those provocations to not only upset (which, surely, is one of the many duties of art: “I go to be challenged…”); but, occasionally, cross some sort of personal boundary. And we need to be ready to make allowances; deal with the consequences; and accept responsibility (not that there are – or should be – easy answers…).

The crux of this issue is probably hidden somewhere in the mix of how we are affected (where those “personal boundaries” lie; what experiences we bring with us; and our general sensitivities); the motivation behind the challenge itself (is this a wake-up call; are our beliefs being teased or taunted; or are we deliberately being insulted and/or offended…?); and the context (which is why relaxed performances are such a wonderful thing…). It is therefore a tricky balance to achieve: especially if one wants to (as one should) instigate change (via drama) – and especially when so many people are resistant to it; and only see and hear what they want to.

To my way of thinking: even with such considerations, there are risks that are worth taking – otherwise theatre (as a subset of art) becomes diluted and ineffectual. I would rather be shaken to my core (physically, mentally, emotionally – even in my current, relatively-fragile state), than bored: “I appreciate that many simply go to the theatre to be entertained…. I don’t.” And, yes, this can be achieved with texts that are centuries old: whether reinterpreted through the eyes of a contemporary director; or revised by the pen of a modern playwright. Otherwise, the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes – although simply reading their words can be transformative – would have been tossed in the bin years ago.

Thanks to the wonderful access policies of the RSC (especially the saintly Jim Morris), I had a reserved seat front and centre for the last performance of Always Orange. I could blame it on the captions at the first viewing; or trying to see through tears at the second; but, this time, everything clicked: as if some sort of automated “aleatoric” jigsaw had finally completed itself in my head with a resounding – yet whispered – “Bang”. (Knowing I would not see it again, perhaps, additionally, my concentration was dialled up even further than normal?)

This is, I think, a ‘writerly’ play – Fraser Grace’s words are “of the highest quality and laser-guided precision (the prologue reads as poetry; yet the craft is invisible)” – almost certainly, if I had the talent, the kind I would like to author. But I wonder if this ‘precision writing’ is at the root of some people’s emotional disconnection with it…? (Ignoring the cardboard boxes – perhaps – and any other ‘Faustian’ parallels – there is a quality to the text that, for me, recalls Marlowe: especially the rapid “tragicomic” contrasts of tongue-in-cheek and transcendent; as well as the intrinsic lyricism and power.)

I admit that (as detailed above), Joe’s scrambled memory and resultant actions speak to, connect with, me with heart-piercing accuracy. I am Joe. The flying metal that shredded my mind (“I’m a mist now”); the paper cuts that flailed my skin; the thunderous collision of books and stage… all too close for comfort. But, if I am the only person (which I don’t for one moment believe…) that sees through and past the wordplay, the surface jokes, the thudding visual metaphors; who is then ‘spoken to’ loudly and clearly… – a bloody immersion in belief; rather than a dismissal of doubt – well, is that how you measure a play’s success (at least on the individual, micro level…)? Or maybe it is just one of those dramas – like Cymbeline, “actually a damnably good read” – that just works better on the page?

Just not for me. This was truth writ in blazing, large capital letters. It hurt like hell – especially when Joe bellowed “I don’t remember anything.” But there is always comfort in understanding: whether it is your own; or someone-else’s shared vantage point and sympathy.

There is a risk, of course, that, in also weeping all the way through Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier (and for the fourth time), I was only following the same well-trodden path of “middle-class tolerance” as represented by “good person” Hawkins. And yet my belief (my personal reading; taking all the above into account) is that everyone’s perspective (moulded by nature and nurture) carries some form of validity – even if we violently disagree with it. The problem lies in actually establishing equality… – of perspective; of achievement; of entitlement; of opportunity… – although my emphasis here (from the viewpoint of a middle-aged, working-class, well-educated deaf and disabled man, with ethnicity running through his extended family like a rich vein of gold) may be different from yours. “This is our England.” YMMV, as they say.

But that is where the potency of this play – as it is performed here – lies. The actors in the principal roles (apart from Ifan Meredith as Archie, I would guess) could all be seen to have sympathy (if not empathy) with those they represent. The actors playing the Chorus, definitely not. This dichotomy – “the deep wound of cultural tension cutting through modern England” – for me (“from the viewpoint”, etc.) fuels its impact: propelling the already powerful script – again laced with poetry – into the political stratosphere. However, for others watching, I can accept that they may only see their personal prejudices – whether similar or different to mine – reinforced.

In a nutshell… this is why we need art that forces us to question ourselves. (That’s why “I was glad, though, that I saw [Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.] twice on the same day”.) If you’re not willing to face those inner demons (not necessarily face them down…), then just go and be “entertained”. That’s fine. But I worry that you’re missing something, missing out on something, in doing so….

I found a shred of paper – a shard from “the sea of glass” – trapped in my copy of the text of Always Orange. “I’m very collected. Thankyou.” But I wasn’t… – not for some time. “I remembered something, from before.”

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