Theatre Critic and Journalist

The Benefits of Doubt (or The Unimportance of Being Honest)

The Benefits of Doubt (or The Unimportance of Being Honest)

Over the past half-century, experimental theatre has been driven by the realities of performance and the performance of realities. From the happenings of the sixties through the sprawling canon of companies such as Forced Entertainment, The Wooster Group and beyond, theatre has become intent on eradicating the fictitious. It has recognised that audiences can no longer blindly accept. We live in an age of cynicism, where our starting points are scepticism and suspicion. Accordingly, performance has evolved so as to make disbelief impossible. In presenting the real, it no longer asks for our investment but demands it.

Intriguingly, this theatre of absolute honesty has a new weapon in its armoury – the fib. Previously such theatre has revelled in the absurdity of pretence, employing shoddy wigs, hammy deaths and implausible animal costumes to reveal the realities underpinning simulation. Of course these techniques remain, but more and more practitioners are choosing to leave certain untruths concealed. Their work looks and feels identical in style and equally honest, but by adopting such apparent openness, they become free to smuggle in their bluffs unnoticed. By declaring the games being played, they become free to play others in secret. They refute concealment precisely so as to conceal.

Take the straight-faced confessions of Phelim McDermot in Improbable’s Panic. He admits to a bout of prostratitus, an addiction to self-help books and a mid-life crisis, and, as such, seems a vulnerable figure making public his personal life. Generously, he exposes something of himself that we might further understand ourselves and each other. Then he claims to have bedded 147 of the world’s women. “Hang on,” you think, “Surely not?” McDermot is certainly no stud, but then, perhaps there is something about him – a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, perhaps a kookily, befuddled charisma. In the end, you can’t be sure one way or the other.

The result is to infect us with doubt. In recent weeks I’ve seen similar techniques used throughout SPILL and Burst Festivals in the work of Robin Deacon, John Haynes, Michael Pinchbeck and Ann Liv Young. In arousing suspicion towards one piece of information these artists force us to question everything that surrounds it. We are granted a responsibility over what we believe and, as such, we must simultaneously act both as jury and audience, sifting through the material as decide what we deem trustworthy and what not. We are made active.

Much of this depends on our frame of reference. We have no way of verifying material that appears confessional. What little we know of a performer generally stems from that which they choose to reveal onstage or in public. We have no sense of the person beyond the performance(s). Perhaps, then, the effect of lying onstage is to remind us that, for all the vulnerability of being in front of an audience, it is the performer that remains in control. Yes, performers let something of themselves slip, but they can keep an awful lot hidden behind a tightly stage-managed persona. Of course, it goes beyond identity. You’ll see similar techniques surrounding improvisation and preparation or safety and risk.

Theatre has an odd relationship with truth. Though it cannot be intrinsically true, since all theatre is, in some way or other, pre-conceived, it can pertain to truth. Time and again, you hear theatre-makers talking of truthfulness. Most of theatre history is taken up by dramatic fiction, yet clearly, through these untruths of fiction, theatre can achieve truthful revelation about the world and existence therein. The question as to how to achieve such aspirations has marked the evolution of theatre practice. Stanislavski sought an investible falsehood though the total suspension of disbelief, where Brecht would later admit to the medium’s inherent falsity. Perhaps, in order to ascertain any truthfulness, theatre benefits from lying. After all, isn’t it just a game of opposites (to cite Plato for a second time in a month), whereby we only see absence through presence, safety through risk and truth through falsity? Mustn’t theatre necessarily be a matter of keeping up appearances?

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