Disasters on stage: why can’t theatre hit mankind where it hurts?
Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 03.02.2011
Under a vast black tarpaulin something is stirring. The plastic sheeting crackles like melting ice as it unfurls to reveal the thing beneath. In the middle of the stage is an enormous industrial robotic arm, the sort you see in car adverts. It looks like the clenched fist of a bionic arm: heavy, muscular and angry.
This is the star of Aurélien Bory’s Sans Objet, which played at the Southbank Centre last weekend as part of the London International Mime Festival. Stood upright, it towered 10ft over the heads of its two human co-stars. Over the next hour, it repeatedly plucked them from the ground and plonked them down elsewhere, like toys in an arcade game. It tossed them out of its territory, like a bouncer ejecting drunks. Sections of the stage were uprooted effortlessly and brandished like weapons. At times, it turned its gaze on us, the audience, and for a second you suspected it might stomp off the stage and tear up the entire South Bank.
What really struck me was the physical threat posed by this machine. It seemed capable of overpowering humanity in a way that we rarely, if ever, see on stage. Hollywood, of course, regularly trades in such external threats to humanity. You see it with alien armies, supernatural beings, incoming meteors and adverse environmental conditions. Non-human forces put the survival of the human race – or, at least, its representatives – in jeopardy. The drama is us versus them, with the audience rooting for its own imperilled kind.
Perhaps it’s forehead-slappingly obvious to say so, but theatre struggles to do likewise. The closest parallels I can think of would be the Triffid-like plants of Return to the Forbidden Planet and Little Shop of Horrors, but these are parodies and the threat is mute. Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, Antigonus fleeing from a bear, suggests it, but the moment is fleeting and, more often than not, its menace is more symbolic than felt.
When theatre does utilise a force beyond human control, it does so as a situation in which human drama may materialise. One need only compare Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People with the movie it influenced, Jaws, to see the difference. Where Ibsen focuses on the dilemma of its central character, Dr Stockmann, Spielberg centres on the hazard itself. The same is true of last year’s A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, in which the impending apocalypse is a dead certainty, rather than a looming problem to be solved.
Explanations for theatre’s supposed inability to tackle environmental issues inevitably point towards scale. Theatre, the argument runs, cannot function at a global level. But I suspect the roots lie deeper than that. Unlike in film, worlds created on stage are too fragile for us to invest in their being threatened. Moreover, to pose significant threat such forces must seem beyond our control, at least initially. In theatre, of course, our control is always inherent and evident. If even death, the utmost among external threats, can be harnessed on stage, what hope for tectonic activity and adverse weather conditions?
Can theatre place humans in danger from anything but themselves? With a landslide of environmental theatre heading our way (The Heretic at the Royal Court) or already engulfing us (Greenland at the National), there’s ample opportunity to find out. Bory’s machine suggests so.
Photograph: Compagnie 111