In a world where relativism is absolute (the ultimate irony of which cannot be lost on anyone!) it is hard to make bold statements about anything without having your thoughts bashed into a bland liberal pc version of themselves. This is not to say that I don’t want discussion, in fact discussion is essential, but in any debate there are sides: let’s just jump off the fence and place our feet firmly on one for a change. So, with that said, I am going to say in no uncertain terms that what I require from the theatre (and when I say the term ‘theatre’ I am encompassing all forms of performance art which is outwardly thinking also) is for it to expect, indeed demand, something from me.
Only a handful of the performances that I have seen over the past 4/5 months have asked something of me as a member of the audience. These have come in a myriad of forms from experimental work such as Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular and Julia Lee Barclays’ Besides, you lose your soul or The History of Western Civilisation through to Caryl Churchill’s much debated piece Seven Jewish Children or the minimalist opera Doctor Atomic, now showing at the Coliseum. The structures of these works are vastly different but each has required its audience to put in some footwork throughout the performance.
I am not asking for discomfort or blood, sweat and tears (well I suppose I am asking for sweat), simply that the spectator’s engagement is required; if nothing is taken from you then how can it mean anything to you, the stakes need to be raised. As well as being an experiment in form Churchill’s 8 minute piece (about 7 minutes longer than it takes the audience to trek in and out) raises the stakes inextricably, presenting us with strongly defined opinions in a pared down exploration of the Gaza conflict and bitingly demanding that we asses our own. The discussion that this play has caused has long outlasted its slight frame.
It is in works where failure is an ever present force that stakes are at their highest. Both Spectacular and Besides, you lose your soul…do not ‘succeed’ completely being slippery beasts which occasionally miss the mark. Only really appealing immediately to an artistic audience or an audience of students; their playful inversion of form and seemingly anarchic construction belies a deep web of thought and process which has gone into their making. One needs to buy into the process before one is drawn to at first seeing, and then buying in to the performance. But although this essential research may stop all audiences from connecting with this material mentally, these pieces affect one and all in a very visceral sense. By capsizing our expectations they affect your state of being for a moment, whether this be through uncomfortable giggling, bored shuffling or plain silent embarrassment. These are works which have a tangible effect on your life experience. This bodily memory of emotion stays with you, eventually prompting mental engagement as to why you were physically so affected.
More solid in form but nonetheless daring to fail John Adams’ Dr Atomic loses any sense of the momentum which typifies scientific discovery with its slow arias. But on closer inspection the enormity of the operatic form is the perfect method to deal with such an epic subject, and a brilliantly contemporary way of art truly reflecting the scale of one of the greatest human atrocities in modern history, the creation of the atom bomb. You may have to work harder to break through the repetitions of the scientifically laden dialogue and repetitive modernist rhythms but the emotional kick delivered for your trouble at the end stays with you for long after you leave the theatre. The correlation of images and notes alongside the ideas being discussed makes them stick at the forefront of your mind and suddenly you are still ruminating 8 days later on them.
For want of a better phrase I would call these Slow Burners. The opposite of all that is safe, polished and immediately flashy, these are the shows which don’t want to be treated with kid gloves or to provide instant gratification. They are works which expect a level of proactive engagement from their audience and for whom the long term results of such engagement is all the richer. I didn’t love any of these shows on immediate exit but they’ve become the best things I’ve seen on introspection (this is with the exception of Seven Jewish Children which I felt was truly remarkable at the time – the slow burner of this show is the ideological war it seems to have promoted in others and which one immediately feels the need to contribute to).
Do I want to be entertained? Yes. Do I want to be mindlessly mollified? Absolutely not. Next time you pick a show to see be brave and pick a slow burner that doesn’t immediately jump out at you but which looks new and complex – it may be the best thing you’ve seen for ages, all the more so for having to work at it. And if it isn’t, well, Samuel Beckett had it right ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ This goes for audiences and artists alike because unless we take chances and push ourselves out of our comfort zones we’re never going to get there. Without being asked or required to give anything then how can a truthfully two way relationship between audience and performer ever be possible?