It is currently en vogue to be a ‘physical theatre’ company. With the work of Kneehigh, Complicite, DV8 and Frantic Assembly (to name but a few) dazzling audiences across Britain, Jean-Louis Barrault’s idea of ‘Total Theatre’ is being actualised in the most dynamic forms possible. Movement, music, visual image and text are each being fully explored for all their possibilities, with no stone left unturned in the search of a fully holistic way of theatre. Naturalism has been pushed to its limits, dissolved and reformed in works which sometimes use a script and sometimes a text as a jumping off point, and sometimes no text at all, in a devised process of company work. This form of theatre coined in some areas as ‘physical’ has been used to delight and astound audiences, and has brought a distinctively European feel to the strongly textual British Theatre. Interestingly companies such as this, who could so easily take their inspiration from anywhere, do end up using a textual basis, and often this form is used to incredibly powerful effect to illuminate stories in ways which would otherwise never have been possible. But recently it seems that Barrault’s original idea been pushed so far visually that it has resulted in a shift away from narrative communication to the point where what had been used to reveal, now seems to confuse and befuddle.
This certainly seems to be a criticism being laid at a number of productions currently touring. Kneehigh’s Don John has been accused of style over substance in a messy, confusing production and Gecko’s production of The Overcoat, a luscious spread of visual goodies, has been harked as the death knell of this form of theatre in a harsh but fair review by Dominic Cavendish. So where did it go wrong? It seems that these companies have become so interested in what they can do on stage, that they have begun to forget why they are doing these things in the first place.
For all it’s splendor, The Overcoat seemed like the overspill of too many ideas; it was as though everything from the rehearsal room had been brought in marvelous technicolour onto the stage, and the outcome of all this – a complete and absolute absence of plan and simple storytelling. To get to Nikolai Gogo’s short story you had to cut through a mass of flabby brilliance, only to find that underneath there wasn’t much of a skeleton to carry it all. (I am still not entirely sure of the ins and outs of this tragic tale and had to look it up on the internet to check – it begs the question of what the usually insightful David Farr was actually doing as dramaturge).
The same problem seems to have befallen Frantic Assembly in their current touring production of Othello. For all it’s daring physical sequences and clever ensemble staging, Shakespeare’s story of obsessive jealousy comes a poor second to their playfully visual trickery. It is a sign of our current penchant for this style that Northern Broadside’s production of Othello (staring an apparently solid Lenny Henry) has been pegged as ‘old fashioned’ because it is a straight version of the text where all the actors simply speak their lines with an understanding which tells the story clearly and are not interested in hanging upside down from a bed frame or making birds out of books.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want every show to be a Wyndham’s star studded ‘safe’ classic, and I’m certainly not saying that making birds out of books is superfluous nonsense. When I saw this transformation in Complicite’s Streets of Crocodiles it delighted me with the possibilities of what theatre could do and highlighted the magical imagination of Bruno Schulz’s empowering book. And this is the difference; Streets of Crocodiles used physical theatre to bring Schulz’s dreams and recollections powerfully to life, Gecko seemed to cover The Overcoat in imagery which was unnecessary – the movements came not from the narrative action but were unnaturally imposed for spectacle. If you want spectacle for spectacle, go and see the fabulous No Fit State’s new show, or even the personally nourishing Le Clique where it is the act of play that is the point and not a story to be told.
Have our physical theatre companies become so involved in stage pictures that they have forgotten theatre’s most basic precept; that of communication? Whether they are telling an established story or a story of their own, whether it be a linear narrative, a circular one or even if they are just aiming to give us a sensory experience; to fully communicate, these companies need to remember to edit their explorations from the rehearsal room to performance space and to ask why they are playing in this way. If they don’t do this it will all become lost, leaving some spectacular sound and fury but in the midst of it all, a very confused audience.