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Critic Matt Trueman: With reality up for grabs a new wave of inconsistency is sweeping theatre

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor – which uses inconsistent casting – at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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There’s a car in Lord of the Rings, racing around Middle-earth. Gladiator has at least one gas-powered chariot and, going by a stray coffee cup in Game of Thrones, Westeros has its first Starbucks franchise.

If continuity is film’s Achilles’ Heel, consistency has always felt like a core tenet of theatre. Credibility depends on it. Build a stage world and it has to cohere. Every character has to feel the same cold. Every mime must mark the same walls. Break the bounds of a fictional world, either on stage or screen, and you burst its bubble. Plays are prone to punctures.

Consistency is crucial in all kinds of theatre – not just fictional drama. Audiences need to know how to watch and it’s by establishing conventions, rules and codes that a production starts to make sense of itself. It’s how signs are ensconced and contracts forged. The show works like this – agreed? Great.

So it’s fascinating to see a new wave of artists toying with inconsistency. It changes the rules of engagement. In an Edinburgh Fringe full of autobiography and authenticity, the most interesting shows blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Scottee’s Class twisted his testimony on growing up on a council estate into artful exaggeration, playing on the gaps in his middle-class audience’s direct experience.

Brokentalkers deployed similar tactics in The Examination, exploiting our prejudices and projections about the penal system. Groupworks’ debut warped a real event out of recognition as The Afflicted entwined real news footage into a fake documentary.

Barrel Organ took it one further into form. Conspiracy’s three performers all played in different registers – one acting ‘in character’, another playing herself here and now, the third in between. The least credible ‘character’ voiced the most credible conspiracies and vice versa. It was up to us to work out how to watch and who to trust.

The Doctor brought all this home. Robert Icke’s critique of identity politics uses a bamboozling device: inconsistent casting. He mixes mimetic (like-for-like) casting with metaphorical (colour-blind, gender-blind etc) casting. Sometimes actors represent people they resemble – the right age, gender, ethnicity. Sometimes they don’t.

The inconsistencies come when actors switch modes within roles or when actors in different modes share a stage. So while Juliet Stevenson seems to be playing a white, middle-aged woman like herself, Naomi Wirthner embodies a white, middle-aged man – something she’s not. Joy Richardson’s character is never defined: as male or female, in terms of ethnicity, or even, initially, as dead or alive. It’s on us to work out how we read it – where outward identity is significant.

All these shows share something – and their inconsistencies are apt. They centre on the question of what or who we believe. At a time when reality is up for grabs, when multiple, contradictory truths sit side-by-side, theatre is finding new forms to ensure its continuity.

Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman

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