Theatre Critic and Journalist

Imagine Form as Content

Imagine Form as Content

In her 2007 review of Presumption, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, Lyn Gardner picked up on the perfect marriage of its form and content. Third Angel’s exploration of the humdrums of a loving relationship, after the passion and peacock feathers have settled, is repeatedly interrupted by the absence of necessary items of set. The piece almost questions whether it should or can proceed and battles through, just as its characters question their own relationship’s worth. As Beth and Tom’s situation unfolds slowly and laboriously, so too does their shared living-room. The form serves as a fitting metaphor for the content, such that what is being presented cannot be separated from the very act of presentation itself.

On seeing Imagine This at the New London Theatre on Monday night, I couldn’t help but agree with Michael Billington’s assessment that the two were entirely at odds. Content, it seemed, had been well and truly battered into shape, much to the detriment of both elements. As a musical, Imagine This is overburdened by its subject, even as its subject is undermined precisely by its being a musical. As Billington says: “the romantic sentiment and uplift inherent in the musical sit uneasily with a story of not just heroic resistance but starvation, suffering and the death of more than 100,000 Polish Jews.”

If fiction is to concern itself with the realities and atrocities of war, it must do so by implication. Either it must focus on the scale while implying each life lost to be a tragedy in and of itself, or else, it must do the reverse: use individual tragedy to point towards the magnitude. To lay focus on both seems impossible. By way of example, Saving Private Ryan’s first scene attempts the former while Life Is Beautiful and The Pianist achieve the opposite. If theatre, film or literature about war relies on mere facts and figures it becomes history. Instead, it must assume its audience already know or understand such things and use them to its advantage.

Theatre, as Imagine This proves so convincingly, cannot compete with film for scale. The stage is too small: it can no more fit an army than it can include a fight to the death. Instead, we must contend with ten pike-wielding Nazi uniforms standing in for the mass rallies of Nuremberg or a clump of bedraggled Jews and a handcart representing the entirety of relocation into the ghettos. Theatre’s hand is forced – it must rely on the individual story to reach the overall picture. War must provide the setting and not the story. It must intrude into and affect the narrative, but it cannot itself be the narrative. We glimpse it momentarily in the rubble and in the rations, in a death but not in constant death, and also as a filter through which we can see everything in between: from cups of tea to bedtime stories.

However, as a form the musical struggles to cope with this. It cannot rely on the minutiae, whether material or emotional, that anchors a story to reality and truth. Instead, musicals tend to magnify. They make stories grander, glossier and more global at the expense of the personal. They prefer spectacle. Musicals are inhabited by archetypes, rather than individuals – their characters are more recognisable than they are real. While Joseph or Guys and Dolls might survive its form, Imagine This feels like misrepresentation of each individual caught up in the history behind it.

(As I’ve been writing this, Imogen Russell Williams has posted a similar blog on warfare in theatre at Guardian Unlimited: here.)

But, I digress. Over the past half-century, theatre has played with form more than ever before. The experimentation that has come from treating theatre as a question posed, rather than a set of conventions, has grown exponentially. In asking, “What can theatre possibly be? What can we get away with? How do we break this?”, theatre has carved out the possibility of being anything it wants. We can clump Punchdrunk and the Globe, Forced Entertainment and Peter Hall, Shunt and A Chorus Line together in the same category. As such, it has become unacceptable merely to tolerate conventions and, in doing so, subordinate form to content.

Form must be equal to content, because form is content. Like a pair of glasses, it is the means by which we see everything onstage and, at the same time, it is always within our field of vision. It’s the reason Third Angel write: “We will make what interests us in whatever format is appropriate, rather than being tied to one distinct art form.” It’s the reason that Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, the Wooster Group and many others boast such a diverse canon of work. It’s also the reason why, having seen Punchdrunk’s Faust, I got so bored during The Masque of the Red Death.

To assume form is to neglect content and the sooner that theatre across the board realises it, the better.

Photograph: Alistair Muir

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