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