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Lyn Gardner: Too often theatre just preaches to the converted. What’s the point?

Civilisation from Antler Theatre at Underbelly, Edinburgh. Photo: Alex Brenner Antler Theatre's Civilisation "stays in the head long after it's over". Photo: Alex Brenner
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Just as the Edinburgh festivals were coming to an end, I read an interview with actor Lindsay Duncan in which she said: “I don’t think that theatre should be preachy. It should be more skilful than that – like a Trojan horse carrying important stuff inside.”

It might seem an obvious thing to say, but she is right, and we need reminding of it. After three weeks on the fringe, it can feel as if you’ve been in church with people thundering at you from the pulpit, rather than in theatre spaces with people conversing with you from the stage.

It’s not just in Edinburgh. Theatre can make you feel preached at quite a lot of the time. Often, realisation dawns halfway through a show that you already knew and agreed with everything it was going to say before you sat down in the auditorium. Sometimes I think I might have written it myself if I had the skills. Which I don’t. I can’t really see the point of a show that only confirms what most of the audience already think and know. I want to be surprised, caught off-guard and be shaken to the core. I want to feel the thrill that comes with unexpected discovery and a world view turned upside down.

I am not saying that theatre doesn’t have a place in informing us about the world – it can give you a window on the world and there is absolutely a place for that. One of the best shows I saw in Edinburgh this year was touring theatre company Lung’s Who Cares – a piece about the plight of young carers who provide £50 billion of free care that the government would otherwise have to pay for.

Who Cares review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘tear-jerking throughout’

The terrific thing about Who Cares is not just the way it makes the invisible visible with real artfulness and craft, but also the way it sees art as having a campaigning role. It’s not art for art’s sake, but art with a function.

And there have been other shows on the fringe this year that investigate the complexities of modern Britain and challenge mainstream narratives in interesting ways, including Cardboard Citizens’ Bystanders.

The complexity of these works ensures they are never preachy, even though they deal with serious issues. They don’t just make us nod their heads, they make us question ourselves, what we think we know and galvanise us into action.

Not everything in Edinburgh, or indeed in theatre generally, is quite so layered. There is still an awful lot of theatre in which a director writes a one-page essay in the programme telling the audience what they should think about the show.

But one of the things that I would suggest emerged out of this year’s fringe is the fact that there is a growing band of young theatremakers who positively embrace complexity and ambiguity. They are making work that is open and not closed, and trust in their own skills sufficiently – and also their audience – to know that people will take from it what they want.

Actually, there was also a veteran theatremaker doing just that in Trying It On. It was good to see David Edgar grappling with form, testing the limits of new writing as well as his own authority as he explored how we get from then to now – from 1968 to Brexit – and coming to some surprising conclusions.

I did see a few shows in Edinburgh that left me floundering. Shows so secretive it seemed they were afraid of yielding up any meaning at all or being accused of tying everything up neatly. Such shows are a particular challenge to the critic and often leave you feeling as if you’ve failed an exam. With the exception of the mighty Arcadia, I often leave Tom Stoppard plays feeling as if I have been simultaneously dazzled and bamboozled.

But there is a real pleasure in seeing a show that plays with ambiguities through form. Where the images it presents are layered and strange, where you leave knowing that what you thought the show was about probably isn’t what anyone else thought it was about. It’s often this work that turns out to be the most rewarding. It is the work that rumbles around in your head long after it’s over.

In Edinburgh this year, such shows included Antler’s Civilisation, Milo Rau’s La Reprise, Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft, Emergency Chorus’ Landscape (1989) and Walrus’ A Table Tennis Play.

I didn’t always know what was going on, but I never minded. They didn’t want to tell me what to think, but they did expand my view of the world and theatre’s possibilities.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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