Lyn Gardner: New voices challenge our idea of ‘good’ theatre
On almost my final day in Edinburgh, I went to see Samira Elagoz’s Cock, Cock…Who’s There? at Summerhall, which was part of the Start to Finnish showcase and had won a Total Theatre Award in the emerging artist category.
It’s an uncomfortable and confidently provocative piece that takes Elagoz’s rape by a former boyfriend and transforms an act of disempowerment into one of empowerment. She memorialises her own rape on her own terms.
In that respect, it shares much with another show, Dressed, which was also on the Total Theatre emerging artists’ shortlist. Both works have a fractured messiness that upends some of the traditional ways we tell stories on stage.
Elagoz, in particular, is not a natural performer, nor a trained one. But the very power of the piece comes from the fact that she isn’t. She not only uses film – interviewing friends, family and strangers on the anniversary of her rape – but also her own unmediated presence to explore how we look and how that affects how we see. It raises questions about a young woman’s right to present herself to the world without being judged. By friends. By the police. By us, the audience.
I’m pleased that both these shows were recognised by the Total Theatre Awards because we need to recognise that what might once have been considered failings are in fact their strength. It is theatre that is as much about disrupting the traditional form as telling stories about women that are different from those traditionally told, if they have been told at all.
It takes me back to the 1980s, when female playwrights often used structures, and played with space and time, in a way that was greeted with incomprehension by the male-dominated critical fraternity. Often, they simply dismissed such work as a lack of understanding by women of how to write a play.
‘Might new stories, in a more diverse theatre culture, also demand new forms of telling?’
One of the most interesting developments in the past 15 years has been the way theatremakers and playwrights have experimented with form. We have seen that in shows from Three Kingdoms to Mr Burns, Pomona and This Beautiful Future. We can all list productions by Ivo van Hove, Robert Icke, Rebecca Frecknall and many others that have changed how we see old stories.
But might new stories, in a more diverse theatre culture, also demand new forms of telling? And just as in the 1980s, when women’s efforts to write differently were dismissed as a failure to understand dramatic structure, is there a danger that some work may not be valued because it does not fit into traditional critical ideas of what is good or represents quality in the theatre?
In response to my earlier column about the search for a five-star show, Andrew Latimer said on Twitter that he had been wondering “about the extent to which 2018 is an off year or are standards/mediations of quality becoming increasingly challenged (exciting)?”
been wondering about the extent to which 2018 is an ~off year~ or are standards/mediations of ~quality~ becoming increasingly challenged (exciting)? https://t.co/v1IZh0qBy2
— andrew latimer (@adrltr) August 25, 2018
It’s an interesting point: quality is always a matter of perception, education, cultural viewpoint and subscription to particular values, often quite unconsciously. Brian McMaster’s idea of ‘excellence’ may not be yours or mine. My parents’ ideas about art are very different from those of their grandchildren.
Too often, when theatre does not fit the dominant model, it is dismissed as worthlesss. That is particularly true of work made by artists who are least well-represented in contemporary theatre – artists of colour, women and disabled artists and work co-created with communities – much of which does not conform to
‘Is there a danger that some work may not be valued because it does not fit into traditional critical ideas of what is good?’
Attempts to make this work conform and ape mainstream definitions of quality put them in danger of losing the very thing – their ability to disrupt – that makes it different, surprising and theatrically exciting in the first place.
At Edinburgh, I sat on the panel for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award which was won by Lung’s Trojan Horse, a deserving winner. But when discussing one particular show during the selection process, a panel member pointed out that what some might see as deficiencies in narrative were actually an unfamiliar First Nation form of storytelling. To try to judge it by Western standards was absurd.
I can think of several other Edinburgh shows about which you might say the same, from Queens of Sheba to the Grassmarket Project’s Make It Better. The latter, a show made with volunteer-participants, boasted a chaos that some might dismiss as ‘bad’ theatre but which choose a form reflecting the lives being excavated and their stories being told.
It’s all very well to say we want a more diverse theatre, but if we really do, we must be open to a more diverse dramaturgy. If a theatre of different voices also takes different forms, then it follows that we will need to find different ways to think, talk, discuss and write about the work being made.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday.