Howard Barker, in Arguments for a Theatre, once said, “theatre should be over-ambitious … the stage should swarm with life… it should be a relentless space and never a room.” Or something like that.
I see a lot of theatre. Most of it is independent theatre. That is, theatre produced with little or no government funding; often profit share, where payment is reliant on box office return. I also see some of the productions at the better accommodated, more prestigious theatres.
What I don’t see much of are the really big shows, the block buster musicals that come to town. They’ve got big numbers, big sets, big names and big ticket prices. For the price of one of these big shows I can see maybe five ‘indie’ shows. And although the big shows can be a sensual delight if you get a seat close enough to the stage to see and hear the performances, they can also seem overly slick, a strange and not as good version of a film.
Is this what Barker meant by relentless? Was he urging theatre makers to not be happy to simply seduce an audience with beautiful pictures; to not imitate film? Was he calling for a theatre of meaning, of response, a theatre where souls torn out of both the audience and the actors hang breathless in the air?
I see a lot of theatre. I have made a lot of theatre. And I agree with Barker that “theatre should be over-ambitious.” It is only when a piece of theatre is not ambitious, when it doesn’t want to change the world, that I am disappointed. Sometimes I see a production that is simply an excuse for the actors to be on the stage. There seems very little thought about the impact they will have on the audience. That is when I am saddened by the emptiness of the ambition and the wasted opportunity.
I also agree with Barker that theatre should be “a relentless space and never a room.” The kind of theatre I like and the theatre I hope I have made is a powerful political tool. It is unyielding in its ambition to impact the world, to make us think and act for good. Perhaps for some people this clarion call to act is offensive, particularly if it is clothed in sharp satire that tickles at your insecurities with the edge of a knife blade. Or if it’s performed in a little black box by people you know.
But perhaps relentless is a harsh word. I prefer irrepressible. I want the stage to explode with energy; the uncontainable energy of artists that have something to say.
Image: The Main House Theatre, The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed (Wikipedia Commons)