Re­al­ity bites, but so does real drama, says Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

Hu­man kind can­not bear very much re­al­ity, wrote TS Eliot, and he should know – in the poem Burnt Nor­ton, a lit­tle bird told him.

That was once the main at­trac­tion of go­ing to the the­atre, which por­trayed a world very like our own but where the strug­gles were more in­sur­mount­able, the ever-af­ters im­pos­si­bly happy, and the lighting gen­er­ally nicer.

On some level, though, you could see your life in its fic­tions. Re­al­ity could fade for a while, and when it re­turned it seemed much more bear­able: You think you’ve got prob­lems? Spend some time with Medea.

Every­one knows the con­tract you en­ter into when you see a show, and the “sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief” clause that is so ir­re­triev­ably clichéd that it’s worth re­mind­ing your­self just how ex­traor­di­nary the ar­range­ment is.

Re­li­gion, ma­gi­cians and fraud­sters ask you to be­lieve in some­thing. The the­atre sim­ply asks you to play along. The ac­tors are not who they pre­tend to be. The stage sim­ply stands in for Den­mark or the edge of Pluto. The blood, with any luck, is ar­ti­fi­cial.

And yet we buy into the il­lu­sion, not be­cause we’re gullible, but be­cause it trig­gers some­thing more pro­found in us: a hu­man abil­ity to iden­tify with oth­ers. With enough con­sid­er­a­tion and com­mit­ment, us­ing nat­u­ral­ism, heavy styli­sa­tion or alarm­ing and dis­arm­ing means, the the­atre can con­struct some­thing unreal which none­the­less car­ries a real ef­fect.

How­ever, a wan­der through this year’s Ab­so­lut Fringe (a re­li­able barom­e­ter of what new artists are pur­su­ing most ur­gently) sug­gests that re­al­ity is bit­ing back. Call it what you will – post­dra­matic, avant garde, doc­u­men­tary or, for even less mean­ing, ex­per­i­men­tal – but the move­ment is grow­ing stronger.

In Fringe­land, the ac­tors are just ac­tors (or, bet­ter still, mildly un­com­fort­able non-ac­tors or, in­creas­ingly, you). The stage is just a stage, ex­posed and largely bare (no point pre­tend­ing we’re any­where other than right here). Ac­tual sto­ries, with their per­sua­sive fic­tions, con­sid­ered char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and fiendishly tricky struc­tures, are em­bar­rass­ing anachro­nisms.

In­stead, re­al­ity the­atre dwells on the me­chan­ics. “This is a play about noth­ing,” re­ported the per­former of one show (mer­ci­fully, that wasn’t en­tirely true). “This is a use­less play,” an­nounced the maker of an­other (sadly, he wasn’t bluff­ing).

The move­ment seems to have hit an early cri­sis, now con­geal­ing into a se­ries of spent tropes: per­form­ers mined for “real” ma­te­rial; pro­duc­tions rev­el­ling in the tech­nol­ogy of rov­ing video cam­eras; shape and struc­ture re­placed with mon­tage and jux­ta­po­si­tion; no cli­max or res­o­lu­tion where a mu­sic num­ber or dance se­quence will do. Audiences are of­ten asked to par­tic­i­pate, but, as rad­i­cal as the move­ment flat­ters it­self to be, they are never in­volved more deeply: Don’t sus­pend any­thing, we’re told. Face up to re­al­ity. Imagination can take the night off.

In small doses, such the­atre wakes us from the daze of our com­plic­ity with fic­tion. Too much of it, though, and ev­ery­thing feels ex­haust­ing and self-con­scious – like be­ing en­cour­aged to sleep, but never al­lowed to dream.

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