The Dissident Landing

It is fairly obvious I have spent too much time in an Eastern European theatre world – there are no surprises for guessing that! Throughout a key period, I was either reading and studying Polish and Romanian theatre or spending time there immersing myself in the theatres of Kantor and Grotowski; Serban and Purcarete; the plays of Witkacy, Sorescu, Grombowicz, Mrozek, and others, or just wandering around old theatre spaces and seeing old posters on the dressing room or barroom walls. That world, that legacy, of a martyred theatre, a wracked body, cast out by the State, is indelibly printed in me now. So it is no surprise also that the plays I am drawn to here back in Britain and the dramas I find stumbling off my pen are also in some ways echoes and reflections of a theatre aesthetic rooted in a broader European view – a view which is never anchored in the domestic, the familiar, the naive. These theatre worlds are half way between the surreal imaginations of a child hiding under a bed in the dark and the light of a prison cell in all its chromatic  nakedness. It is a theatre world not afraid of a deep intellectual examination, a rigour, if you will, of a world which perhaps only ever occupies the space of a single mind – the author’s mind. There is a fierceness in these writings and stagings which demands an equal commitment from an audience who are there to witness almost as a privilege these odd gambols. Drama is perhaps elevated to the level of philosophy – and indeed all early philosophy was dramatised dialogue – and is not afraid to wear those clothes as a challenge and even a disdain.

These thoughts drift around in me now. I am roughing out a new play on the page – the ideas are tumbling out and again I seem to be writing a stage world unconnected to any expected diegesis. There is a lost shore cluttered with the detritus of a forgotten civilization. Characters wander knowingly through this obscene wreckage – an old woman in a shawl attempts to remember her past, the lover whose passion matched hers, marking the spot where they consummated an heroic love, forgetting the details, swearing like a trooper, finally realising how he was butchered and burnt on the same spot even as an old telephone rings and rings; a beggar pushes a pram through the wreckage as crowds hurry past, uncaring, while he exhorts them all to stop and pause, to gaze upon the innocent face of his child in the pram, and when finally a gentleman does step out from the endless crowds to gaze upon that unmarked face in the pram, this beggar exacts a brutal price for such a pleasure; a woman drifts apart from another and then haunts her even as the other moves on into the arms of a lost lover, drifting into her bed in the night when she is absent; a writer unravels his words in the vain hope of erasing his stories and the characters in them who have now tumbled out into the world; and so on . . . This play, The Day After Yesterday, is still in a rough form but I have the smell of it – the shape and taste as it were of it. I can see this shore, that wreckage which populates it, and half-see the odd characters who stumble and push their way in it. I know the beggar with the pram and that innocent child in it will recur again and again in the scenes – colliding with the other characters but do not yet know why – or indeed the horrible significance of that child and its face. I know that each character has lived before in the pens of other writers now long since dead – Homer, Seneca, Sophocles, for example, but that now they live in a world which has long since forgotten them and their fates so now they are refugees of sorts, searching, struggling, killing, to make a new existence, a new fate now all their own. I know that underneath the little scenes which collide against eachother, that sea in the distance mourns with an elegiac tone and that brittle light falls on them all alone on that lost shore. And finally I know that only in the theatre can this world, these characters, find a truthful place. The rest is still to be found.

I read recently a short description for a new play. It went something like this: Bob has been away from his family for some time. They have forgotten him.  A tragic event has made him finally return. One long night sees Bob and his family uncover a dark truth which has explosive consequences for all concerned. I am lying of course. There is no such new play arriving at a stage soon – or to be more accurate perhaps that description in some way sums up most new plays in some form or another. It is a generic drama – it promises a gripping story, a familiar environment, a twist, possible violence, and of course some swearing. Incest will no doubt rear its head – or at least the hint of it – and no doubt also the young innocent in the family herd will inevitably end up either being maimed or indeed do the maiming. Whether it is a comedy or a tragedy remains to be seen. OK, I am being flippant. Of course I am. That story or description is indeed a powerful one and one which does – in one form or another – occupy so much theatre in Britain today. It is the domestic reared up to the level of ‘tragedy’. It is Ibsen in the end in a t-shirt and jeans.

No matter how tough or rigorous the writing of that story, though, or the inventiveness of the staging, the power of the actors, and so on, it remains at the end of the day a story rooted in the familiar. We – the audience – identify with the setting either on a personal level or at the least on a generic level. It touches us as a place we can anchor ourselves in and therefore allows us to empathise with the characters. The world itself springs no surprises – only the actions of the characters in it.

I wish I could write in that genre. I really do. My flippancy above is only really barely disguised jealousy. However, all those years spent abroad in Poland and Romania deep in those theatre cultures have left me an orphan from that theatre. I imagine a strange poetic space adrift with lost characters and can only imagine the stage as the ideal and only locale for their expression – I imagine a domestic ‘tragedy’ and need only knock on the nearest door to find it. Perhaps that makes me an orphan from theatre here. A vagabond even. Perhaps I find kinship with these lost characters because on a deep symbolic level they are acting out my own exile. I am being glib though. What I really believe is that somewhere in theatre is a place where a strange poetic space can collide with a rigorous almost fierce debate (a place where a beggar pleas for someone – anyone – to look into his old pram and gaze upon the unspoilt face of his child) and open up a new horizon. A horizon both beautiful and unknown.

If anything, the most powerful experience for me in theatre is always that moment when the curtain rises or the first lights open to reveal . . . In that moment of hanging suspension when anything can happen, I find myself always holding my breath – almost willing a new universe into being. I am almost always disappointed but no matter what comes next on the stage it is almost always worth it just for the first moment when my breath pauses and I almost see that lost shore and that wreckage of a play that has not yet had the courage to come into being . . .

Did I mention I had read too many Eastern European plays??

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3 thoughts on “The Dissident Landing

  1. The Dutch used to say that all Britain was interested in was politics & machines & I think it’s roughly true. On the whole we like to know where we are, in which hierarchy & what can be done about it or not done… If it gets more philosophical than that eventually it goes in pseud’s corner & gets exiled… like Howard Barker… Anyway – I hope some reader or director or producer somewhere, in at least one theatre, realises that there is a market for something other & something more…

  2. Karen, I think you are right. There has always been a sense here in Britain that theatre somehow does not have the right to dress itself up in something more rarefied – I think Howard Barker writes about being an elitist and that is something to be cherished as it kicks against the numbing popularism of current theatre!

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