About a year ago – almost to the day, in fact – I went into the Lyric Hammersmith and emerged three hours later with my tiny brain splattered all over the auditorium. Over the space of those three hours, Three Kingdoms comprehensively blew my mind. Whatever its problems or flaws, and almost regardless of the stacks of beautiful, meaty, exciting criticism it generated, it spat people out onto the streets of Hammersmith with eyes wide and thoughts overflowing. It went off like a bomb and left us all scrabbling around in the crater.
As I return to this column after an unforgivably lengthy hiatus, my brain is in need of being exploded once again. Recently, when asked what shows have been making an impact on me, my mind goes momentarily blank. I snatch at perhaps a handful of productions that have quickened my pulse so far this year, but the others slip into an indistinct blur, obscured by the mental fog of deadlines and to-do lists. Which is not to say that the theatre I’ve been seeing is bad. On the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of work that is undeniably good. But I’ve noticed that, on the whole, not much of it has been getting me really, gut-twistingly, staying-up-all-night-thinking-about-it excited. It’s tough to name this year’s equivalent of the sheer visceral punch landed by Three Kingdoms.
At the same time as mentally revisiting Three Kingdoms, I stumbled across George Want’s excellent blog on Game Theory and theatre. Game Theory, as Want explains, is based on an understanding of humans as rational, calculated beings, making isolated decisions based on self-serving strategies. Basically, it posits that we’re all manipulative automatons constantly seeking personal gain. Want’s concern is that theatre in this country often looks alarmingly like it’s conforming to Game Theory’s way of seeing the world; it separates off characters as individuals driven by rational motives, pushed around like chess pieces by a playwright whose own autonomy is enshrined within the text-driven tradition of British theatre. While the idea of characters as rational might be disputed (ever questioned the motives of one of Chekhov’s self-destructive protagonists, for instance?), there is something troubling about the individualism which surprisingly exists within an art form that most of us like to think of as collective and collaborative.
Of course, there’s also a political element to this. Game Theory is, essentially, the Thatcher school of (non)society. It’s a perspective on humanity that would separate us all into atomised individuals, each in pursuit of our own desires and responsible only for our own improvement. And while Maggie might be dead and buried, Thatcherism – much as we might wish otherwise – certainly isn’t. For anyone who believes, as I do, that theatre has something to say about the world, the fact that it chooses to say it in a way that arguably subscribes to a neoliberal, ruthlessly individualist model of humans as rational and supremely self-serving beings is a little worrying to say the least.
Not long after reading Want’s blog, I was pointed towards Chris Goode’s essay on The Forest and the Field – one of this year’s few thrilling reminders of why I get so excited about theatre – ahead of its upcoming run at Mayfest. A couple of sentences from this piece of writing sum up beautifully both the potential and the potential failure of theatre as a form: “Theatre is uniquely placed to help us think about those things, because, for the time of our meeting together within it, we live together inside it. A play with a ‘fourth wall’, in which the audience is treated as invisible and preferably silently obedient, may struggle to do more in a political sense than tell us what one person, the playwright, thinks.” Theatre contains the possibility of radical impact because it is necessarily collaborative in its making and collective in its reception – people are physically brought together in a space – but that radicalism is equally susceptible to neutralisation by the structures built up around it, particularly when those structures are so historically reinforced that they become blithely taken for granted.
It was Goode again who provided me with a small but much-needed dose of brain-melting irrationality when I recently dropped in on his latest Open House at the National Theatre Studio. Goode and his assembled invitees were working on The Witch of Edmonton, a dark, elusive and utterly bonkers multi-authored Jacobean play, which somehow achieved the feat of being even stranger than I remember it from studying the text at university. Arriving on the Thursday, well into the process, I spent much of my time catching up, looking around the room and trying to recover what I’d missed. One of the many things blu-tacked up on the walls – mysterious, teasing traces of the activity that had been taking place over the previous three days – was a piece of paper scrawled over with people’s superstitions, those enduring markers of our susceptibility to irrational fears. I mentally added my own maddening compulsion to touch wood, an illogical reflex I’ve never quite been able to shake.
Throughout the day I spent in the studio, the individuals in the room grappled with gender, with power, with sexuality, with prejudice in all its forms and the mutilating effects it has on human behaviour. Both the strange and troubling events of the play itself and the dark places it took each of us to would seem to be ample evidence of the complete and utter irrationality of human beings. And isn’t it also slightly irrational that we’d all chosen to gather together in this space and, with the stubborn hope of discovering something, subjected ourselves to this investigation? It was a gloriously sunny day outside; we could all be sitting on the nearby South Bank, clutching ice-creams. But we remained inside, in pursuit of something that might just make a difference (and I use “we” in the loosest sense, as I mostly just sat, watched and furrowed my brow in thought).
Of course watching a process is quite different (and often, surprisingly, more exciting) than a night at the theatre, but live performance is at its best when it can offer audiences those same thrilling moments of realisation or complexity that emerge in the rehearsal room. When I think about the theatre that has stood out for me so far this year, it might not always be particularly radical or have a clear political impetus, but it all shares a certain element of exhilarating messiness. It’s the fractured stories of Narrative; the twisting, untidy labyrinth of the human brain in My Perfect Mind; the generous, naked emotion of Love Letters Straight From Your Heart; the fresh, unsettling rage of Teenage Riot; the tangle of deep, difficult thought that The Forest and the Field slowly attempts to unpick. It’s work that highlights collaboration and gives thought to its relationship with an audience, even when the fourth wall remains mostly intact. It’s work that is, in some way or other, a bit irrational.
Rationality – at least in its purest form – is something of a myth, seductive and dangerous in equal parts, towards which hundreds of years’ worth of human effort has obsessively strived. While we are of course capable of rational thought, we do not make consistently rational choices and we do not live in a rational world. So to make theatre entirely rationally is to deny emotion, to deny complexity, to deny difference. Which is why I’m echoing Want’s call for irrational theatre, “theatre that is visceral, unexpected and does not necessarily make any sense; which is collaborative, and recognises that ‘theatre is multi-authored’”. And somehow I don’t think we’re alone in hoping for this.
Good plays well done are all very well, but from time to time I also want – perhaps even need – something more. I want theatre that is messy, that is difficult, that makes about as much sense as being a human in today’s world does. But most of all, I want to have my mind blown.