On Cavemen (or The Billington in Me)
Recently, as a result of my day job, I’ve been watching theatre with fresh eyes. Perhaps ‘fresh’ is the wrong word. Blinkered, maybe. Or glazed. You see, for the first time in ages, I’ve been watching theatre as neither a practitioner nor a critic, but as a punter. Well, technically, not as a punter, since I still haven’t been paying for tickets, but more as a professional fan – paid to sit and enjoy, to make the best of and find the good in what’s on show. To watch, relax and enjoy, rather than to work out, to discern, to find insight or inspiration. Accordingly, I’ve been sitting back and absorbing, where usually I lean forward and peer in from beneath a furrowed brow. It’s a matter of watching passively instead of actively.
And it’s startling how forgiving one becomes. One difference is that one’s own reputation is not at stake. Where the critic is forced to forge an opinion – nay, a justified opinion – the unhurried theatregoer need only smile or grimace. Gone is the niggling exasperation and the gurning frustration at questionable decisions and indefensible idiocy. There is no desperate search for a hook on which to hang all else and no purgatorial wait for that moment where everything clicks into place. Instead, I’ve been following – missing just as much as I take in – and allowing my interest free rein to roam around stage, wings and narrative, actors, audience and auditorium.
On top of this, I’ve also been watching a type of theatre with which I have become unaccustomed. A theatre that lives and dies by its conventions. A theatre that is happy to leave its foundations uninterrogated and play quietly, often quite beautifully and intelligently, by its own rules. It is this very theatre that I fell in love with as a naive, slightly geeky and overly-romantic teenager. Yet it is the very same theatre that I have spurned as a naive, slightly geeky and overly-romantic twenty-something.
Over the past few years, I have come to value honesty in performance as increasingly important. As such, I have tended away from performance that does not admit of its own status or leaves its shortcomings unmentioned. Exposure to a more honest theatre feels a bit like the walk out of Plato’s cave: from watching and accepting the shadows flickering on the back wall to seeing the fire that casts them. One’s former notions no longer seem satisfactory, no longer truthful enough. So, in many ways, my recent return to the kind of theatre that relies on the acceptance of conventions to build a fiction has felt like a return to the cave. I can no longer watch the fiction without also seeing the conventions behind it, just as the cave re-visitor can no longer watch the shadows in ignorance of the fire that creates them.
Walking back into the cave, returning to my seat with its wall-view, then, has brought with it a certain scepticism that breeds an unwillingness – perhaps even an inability – to accept dramatic fiction. I have found myself strangely unable to suspend disbelief. (The phrase is one with which I have a tortured relationship after being pulled up on its use in an aesthetics tutorial several years ago: “Yes, but we don’t really believe do we?” How I wish I understood the double negative more fully at the time.) I find it impossible to ignore the realities (some might say distractions) of performance, of stage, of wings, of audience, of choices and non-choices. Watching a play has, for me, become like reading a multi-dimensional, multi-sensory novel; a process of picking apart the signification in order to understand it.
I raise these personal stumbling blocks now because I intend to increase the amount of ‘conventional’ theatre that I review over the coming months. In the past six months, I have sought out work that I want to see, work that I suspect I will enjoy. After all, when reviewing for free, the show itself serves as both subject and reward. Now, I feel that I need to start honing my practice and challenging myself as a critic by reviewing a more diverse range of work and that must include more of the mainstream.
The questions as to whether I can watch such work critically despite an element of detachment from the fiction and, if so, how that criticism might manifest itself seems particularly pertinent. I suspect that there must be a balance. To examine this type of theatre to closely might result in my breaking it, yet to absorb it too readily might be to forgive its faults. How can one remain detached and simultaneously invest in a piece of theatre? How can one both accept and interrogate a fiction? Is it a case of seeing through or overlooking the conventions that are at play? Will my eyes (re)adjust to the dark?