Psychological Realism – A precious mistress, but why are we so wed to it?

Originally Published on Arts Professional.

Take a look at the SPILL Festival programme which has just stormed the Barbican and you’ll see a number of exciting British performance artists matching strides with their international counterparts. When it comes to live art British artists are at the forefront of exciting experimental work, constantly moving forward.

But if we trawl our gaze across the theatrical spectrum to the world of acting, a very different type of performance, as a country we still seem to be deeply wedded to the power of psychological realism.

Ever since Constantin Stanislavski created his groundbreaking method British theatre has been in the thrall of this ‘inside out’ approach. By digging deep into the psychology of a character and empathetically placing themselves within these fictional people through emotion memory, the actor was to attain the most natural performance possible. It was a system that was to cross borders and cultural boundaries, infusing the live arts so thoroughly that it is now seen as the status quo.

But nowhere in the world is this Russian as prized as in Britain and America where his hold on actors and directors seems almost ironclad. This was brought home to me once again when reading up on various past productions of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. Time and again I was struck by how every company and artist seemed obsessed with stripping the layers away from this iconic temptress to reveal the ‘real woman beneath’. As though this was the only way into an accurate rendition of Wedekind’s libido-driven nymph.

I knew that this wasn’t true as last week I had seen the Berliner Ensemble perform Robert Wilson’s version of Lulu in Berlin. Wilson’s epic theatre has long been admired in Europe where both theatres and audiences are more understanding of the kind of expressionist performance this auteur is famous for. Wilson’s style of heightened language and highly choreographed movement encased within an architecturally sharp mise en scene is a deeply unnatural one. Psychological realism it ain’t, but sitting in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm watching a play in a language I don’t understand, Lulu’s story was told to me through abstract gesture with immense emotional clarity.

Angela Winkler translated her deep psychological understanding of this icon within a doll like external persona. The sensual temptation of a Japanese geisha sang out in her stiffly corseted shuffling wiggle. Winkler walked but not realistically; her ‘naturalism’ was akin to the mannerisms of the 18th Century David Garrick. But within this highly unsexy shuffle Lulu’s famous contradiction of Madonna/whore screamed out at us. Her tinkling laugh was performed with unnatural regularity, her voice too perfectly modulated to be human. It was an oddness that was mirrored every player in the freak show of fathers and lovers that circled and eventually devoured her.

It was an otherworldly performance but Wilson’s abstract direction made sense to me with Lulu’s psychological journey communicated clearly through these externally driven creatures. It reminded me that psychological realism, whilst potent, is not the only successful method of acting, so why are we so stuck on it?

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