Theatre Critic and Journalist

LIFT Blog: The Epic & The Intimate

LIFT Blog: The Epic & The Intimate

Published on LIFT Blog, July 2010

At Thursday’s LIFT talk, inclusively titled The Epic and The Intimate, there seemed to be polite consensus that the miniscule was as capable as conjuring grand moments as the enormous was of speaking on a personal level. While I won’t deny that, it sounded to me much like the sort of harmonious accord that stems from an aversion to treading on toes. By which I mean that the fear of causing offence or belittling another type of work tempers the defence of one’s own. Even Adrian Howells, who in the words of Lyn Gardner “effectively lobbed a hand grenade through the proscenium arch,” seemed reluctant to take wholehearted ownership of his argument, mitigating it as devil’s advocacy. Given, however, that no one took up Lyn’s challenge to return fire on Adrian, I offer the following in the same spirit of divisive thought experiment.

I don’t believe audiences are interested in intimacy. I don’t buy this repeated assertion that, as our communication with one another becomes increasingly dominated by mediatisation and virtual exchange, we’re flocking to this type of theatre in search of real, human connections. After a hard day spent texting, tweeting, and status-updating, who gets home with a craving for an interactive, intimate theatrical experience? Who, when looking for a real human encounter, sets off to the theatre? Who, in a moment of loneliness, thinks, “If only Adrian Howells were here to give me a bath”?

None of this is to deny intimacy its place in theatre of this kind, whether as a concept, an experience or an object of enquiry. Nor is it to write off the possibility of genuine intimate encounters (or, at least, moments) in the framed setting of performance. Rather I wish to warn against overstating its importance as a motivating factor for attendance. There are two ways to look at the newfound popularity of this branch of theatre: one is amongst artists, the other is amongst audiences. Certainly, intimacy is, for reasons already touched on, a legitimate and important question for the former. Audiences, I propose, come at the work from a different angle.

I suspect audiences are interested in themselves. The draw to so-called intimate theatre is that it’s personal. It’s tailor-made. It’s bespoke. It’s about them and it’s theirs. I’d argue that we’ve become so accustomed to being the centre of our own worlds that we’ve started to expect that of our theatre. Consider the specificity of internet advertising. Or the way in which cultural institutions, corporate companies, even political parties, approach us directly armed with enough knowledge to do so on a seemingly personal and individual level.

After all, thanks to video games, we’re used to being the hero. With reality television, we know that anyone can be the centre of attention. So is work of this nature pandering to that desire? Does it – just as Noel Edmonds repeatedly reminds contestants on Deal or No Deal that it’s their game – rely on the fact that it belongs to us alone? Is this theatre for the iGeneration?

We must remember that artists and audiences have different perspectives on the work in question. Artists get to see the spectrum of audiences responses, where audiences only get to experience and respond the once. Accordingly while artists can get a wider sense of what intimacy means to people, audiences are content to have a seemingly personal experience whether intimate or epic in scale. Might we be just as happy sat alone in the Olivier auditorium?

Photograph: Adrian Howells

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