Is it theatre or is it just absurd?

Avant-garde theatre? No storyline, no characters, just people making exhibitions of themselves. At least, that's what the critics think. But who are they to judge? Clare Bayley asks representatives from both sides of the dramatic conflict to explain thems
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The Independent Culture
When faced with a difficult piece of avant-garde theatre, the cry from the critical establishment goes up: but is it theatre? To which, increasingly, the performers respond: but is that criticism? Changes that take place in an artform must be reflected in its criticism, but as the experiments on the avant-garde move further away from what is recognisably theatre, and draw their influences as much (or more) from television, film and visual art as from Shakespeare and Ibsen, a critical impasse occurs. Some practitioners complain that theatre critics dismiss and belittle their work simply because it does not conform to the traditions of classical theatre. Others accuse theatre critics of failing to understand the work, of defensively refusing to try to analyse it (in other words, they don't even bother to see it). Critics, on the other hand, complain that experimental work is wilfully obscure, sometimes elitist, and that the most basic skills and techniques of theatre have been abandoned. Alongside a debate around how to define and how to describe this kind of work (is it Live Art, performance art, experimental, visual, physical or independent theatre?), there is a discussion about the function of criticism.

As objective realities, provable plots, discernible characters and single moral messages disappear, some practitioners argue for a more interpretative style of criticism rather than the conventional "describe and judge" school. But if there doesn't seem to be one overriding interpretation to a piece of work, it's tempting to describe solely what happens on stage, which seems like a critical cop-out. But is it? Here, we asked representatives from both sides of the divide to put their cases forward.

Readers can judge for themselves by watching performances at the Barclays New Stages Festival in Nottingham (0115-941 9419) and London (0171-730 1745) to 17 June, or at the London International Festival of Theatre (11 June-9 July).

THE CRITIC

PAUL TAYLOR

The ICA employee informed us that there had been a "problem with the dry ice delivery", which meant that we would not be seeing the advertised piece at its full length or strength. "We are sorry but it will still be an important performance." After only a few minutes of Krieg (or, War) 1989, it became clear that the whole thing would have been vastly more entertaining if the dry ice had arrived and that there had been a delivery problem with the German performer / devisers, Christophe Anders and Ursula Balser.

While he created plumbing noises with his synthesiser, she started turning rows of bricks into the pattern of a maze and shovelled and patted sand into pyramid shapes. Meanwhile Anders harangued us, to a deafening rock beat, with slogans about war. Most of these were in German and drowned out by the "aural collage". When they were audible and in English, it was on the whole worse. "Politics is the continuation of war by other means," yowled Anders with a somewhat misguided sense of his own subversiveness since such a notion is implied in Karl von Clausewitz's original aphorism.

Shows like this are a nightmare to review because: a) they consist of nothing more than their "concept" and b) the concept is too obscurely communicated to be subjected to even the most rudimentary tests of coherence, resulting in an "Am I sick, or are they?" critical impasse. What would it mean for this or that performance piece to violate its own creative logic? When you have no idea, there are grounds for suspecting that no such logic exists.

It's a truism that a critic is paid not to be right but to be interesting, which is not to say that in interpreting, say, a great production of a Shakespearian masterpiece, he or she might not be demonstrably wrong on this or that point. But with too many performance pieces there is no criterion of "wrongness": they are vacuums because they mean anything you want them to mean. Some companies might say well, that is our point, we are opposed to conventional standards of meaning, acting etc etc. But unless the reasons for this opposition are coherent, and embodied in the performance, this sort of policy is just the fig-leaf of amateurism.

THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR

TOM MORRIS, BAC

There is a disjunction between the ways of writing about theatre and some of the new theatre forms emerging. In other art-forms, a judgement of absolute artistic merit is not the first response to the work. Most TV coverage is preview: informal and style-related. So, with a few notable exceptions, the business of trying to produce a measured aesthetic critical response is suspended. This approach is very important but simply can't engage with certain kinds of work, influenced by TV and film, which challenge accepted forms of theatrical narrative, or which emerge from a different cultural bedrock. For example, the critical war over Blasted was irrelevant to the work - it proved in a way that certain audiences want nothing to do with certain forms of critical response.

From the point of view of the media, it's difficult to work out how to reach those people; and from the point of view of those in the theatre, they've got to work out what magazines, TV or videos these people read or watch, and get represented in those publications.

Claire Armitstead: Arts Editor, 'Guardian'

As a critic it's very intimidating when the work you are reviewing fundamentally challenges the very precepts by which you write: linguistic, logical, linear narrative structures. That can lead to a defensive reaction which says, this is not theatre.

We all hold Kenneth Tynan up as the example of the tradition we're in. Maybe the time has come to structurally change that, to challenge that notion of a critic as one person in a passionately knowledgeable position, pontificating. Maybe what we need to develop is a polyphony of voices.

Michael Coveney: Critic, 'Observer'

People think it's like trying to take a knife and fork to jelly, reviewing this kind of work. But I don't think it's any more difficult than writing about linear narrative - good writing is good writing, end of story. There was a very damaging period of criticism which said just describe the images and go with the flow, man - but this kind of critical writing is either not very rigorous, or elitist and unreadable. I feel that if you live in Scunthorpe or Aberdeen you actually don't want to read about people jerking off in the ICA. You want to read about what's happening on the big public stages in Leeds or Glasgow.

Keith Khan: Artist and performer

My work tends to get described as "exotic" because it's coming from an Asian company. But we're not intending to make it exotic, we're just portraying our reality. I'd much rather the critics talked about the ideas within the work, the playing with form and content, and why. Often we get a lukewarm response because of a sense of embarrassment from a critic who doesn't understand what the dance or cultural references are. Recently my work has been closer to theatre than live art, because I'm not stuck in one bracket, and I hope the reviews can reflect that diversity of output.

THE PERFORMER

ANNIE GRIFFIN

The importance of performance is that it is the crucible for ideas. What we all hate about theatre, those of us who happen to be working in audience-performer relationships which we don't define as theatre, is that the ideas are so obvious and so signposted. What I do is a showcase format, it's me standing up in front of people. I'm not doing it through an object or a painting; I'm exposing myself. People who have an experience of looking at visual art have an understanding of that - they're used to looking for ideas. Presentational and performance skills, of course, are important but if somebody isn't interested in your ideas, if they're just interested in comparing you to Me and My Girl, then they're not on the same bus as you. And then there is no point in them writing about it.

I think the first thing you need from any critic is enthusiasm. I'd much rather have somebody slag me off who was really into seeing the work than that namby-pamby "it must be important so I must say the right thing" school of criticism. There's been a real change in the nature of arts criticism in the last five years, and that's to do with PR. Journalists are so passive nowadays. If you can't afford pounds 5,000 for a publicist to spoon-feed a critic, then you haven't got a hope. There is a group of people who are social, urban beings who take advantage of the fact that they're in London. And there are commissioning editors who actually don't go out in the evening, and I find that irritating.

I think the issues of experimental and non-experimental are irrelevant, I think it's how much money you've got behind your operation that matters. If you are Lepage and you've got PR agents like Michael Morris and Mark Borkowski behind you, there is no problem at all.

Like everyone else, I am trying to communicate. I learn a lot from people's writing about my own work, and that's exciting. There is such an appetite for ideas. People really want to know what artists are doing. But there is a big block about the media servicing that curiosity. All we ever get is the same old story about Damien Hirst. The media needs to be as open-minded as the public is.

THE PRODUCER

STELLA HALL, BARCLAYS NEW STAGES

It's not always appropriate to frame live art within a theatrical perspective - for example, a performance by a fine artist like Robert Pacitti might be more appropriately reviewed by a visual arts reviewer. There's a very simple analogy: you don't send the classical music reviewer to Blur or Hole, do you? It's not appropriate, and that's not a criticism of the critic.

Often the critical response to live art is entirely visceral, a gut reaction. That's good, but it would be equally valuable to examine how this has grown out of the previous piece, and the piece before that. These artists didn't just arrive, there is a theatre tradition stretching back 30 years, to Brecht and Theatre Workshop and others. The work itself loses out by not growing up in a critical environment. I see a lot of artists who are referring back to work of an earlier generation. Sometimes it's an ironic commentary or a deconstruction of that work, but sometimes it's not conscious at all - not only have they not seen that artist, but they haven't read about them either.

Michael Morris: Producer

I think it is detrimental to call the area of work that is expanding the borders of theatre "live art", which is an exclusive, narrow definition. Britain is the only country in Europe where this is an issue. I feel that what Lepage does, for example, is theatre pure and simple. Theatre critics tend to relate the work to what else they've seen; they said he was influenced by Robert Wilson, but he'd never seen Wilson's work until a few years ago. Perhaps a film critic would be a good person to review Lepage because the way he edits and organises material is very filmic.

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