Context and the postdramatic

A scene from Dead at Last, No More Air. Photo: Ludovic des Cognets
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Last week the new Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Sajid Javid called for more accessibility in the arts. It was a pretty stonking speech and it got me thinking practically about how wider access can be achieved – a multifarious question with many different answers, but the one I want to champion is context.

This isn’t relevant for all shows of course. Plays like Midsummer Night’s Dream come with their own contextualisation. But I think it’s the way we can make what could be charged as ‘difficult work’ – work that is cutting edge or just out of our comfort zones – more accessible to audiences who otherwise may find it impossible to crack.

Context is a delicate thing to balance. You don’t want to give too much away. This is a problem that haunts the fine art world, where curator’s accompanying texts are often mocked as spoon feeding or worse, adding meaning to something that has none independently.

But it doesn’t have to be about dumbing down work that is challenging, or providing the answers to work that asks questions. It can be used to give a hand to the audience and asking them to begin a journey they may not feel comfortable embarking on without support.

I encountered this a few weeks with Just A Must’s provocative production of Dead At Last, No More Air by Werner Schwab. It’s a piece of ‘Postdramatic theatre’, a moniker that is elegantly explained by Andrew Haydon here. In a nutshell – if that is at all possible and please do correct me if I’m wrong here – postdramatic theatre does away with narrative as a driving force, placing the emphasis on a nonlinear experience. You can watch a trailer here.

For British audiences raised on a literary playwriting tradition this can be confusing. ‘Just what the hell is going on?’ was a question that went through my mind for the first 15 minutes of Dead At Last, No More Air as speeches were made and actions carried out with seemingly no structure. I felt like I’d missed something because the cast were superb and something good was definitely happening.

In desperation for ‘meaning’ I scanned the paper programme that formed a sort of ledger. It didn’t describe a plot, rather it gave information about what the characters represented and what the playwright intended. Suddenly I was fine because I’d been let into a little bit of what the cast – with all their rehearsal and discussion – knew. We were on equal footing, even if the terrain was unknown.

Context doesn’t need to come in written form either. At the beginning of the excellent Heist, the groups of potential criminals are given aliases, which gave us a framework, and time to settle in and talk to each other.

Of course I don’t want to be told what to think or feel about the work, but I do want to know what parameters it’s working within. As Javid said, “the job of government isn’t to tell people and organisations what to do. It’s to create an environment in which they can thrive.” Context creates an environment where provocative work can thrive within a larger audience. It enables exciting, cutting edge work to be consumed by as many people as possible. It’s vital to making excellent but challenging cult work, culture for all.