Talking About Theatre | After King Charles III & The Great Fire

April 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

When we first encounter theatre—often Shakespeare—it is as the written word. Of course, there are the theatrics of sports and politics, and we may have been to a play or two (or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat), but the first time we really settle down to think and talk about theatre it is as a script, on the page, in front of us, written by a man who has been dead for 400 years.

There are two ideas that I want to unpack here; both explore theatre as a living thing, though coming at it from different angles. The first is concerned with our capacity and ability to understand theatre as performance, not simply as text. Because you know what, theatre is fun, and theatre is important. Even in Australia.

There’s nothing wrong with Shakespeare; although—if I may indulge an opinion—I think more people enjoy the idea of liking Shakespeare than they do actually like Shakespeare. Shakespeare is fine. But it is the approach that is most concerning. And this approach leads to a widespread misunderstanding of what theatre is, how to talk about it, how it looks and, most significantly, how it comes to be the way it is — but I’ll get to that later.


King Charles III Copyright Sydney Theatre Company

We are taught about meter, metaphor, simile, and so on. We analyse and explore the psychology of the character. We identify ‘truths’ and why it’s still relevant today. We look at the grammar, syntax and punctuation. And we’re told not to stop at the end of a line when we read it out loud in class. That last part, I think, is the most important. It’s supposed to be read out loud. It’s supposed to connect with an audience and stir emotion. The rest of it is very wonderful too and adds to the complexity and genius of it all but first and foremost we need to understand that theatre is not just words on a page; theatre, as people older and wiser than myself have said, is bodies in space.

We do a disservice to both theatre and students by focusing on the analysis of language as simply words. This is to the detriment of us as a public. The former disservice is more obvious because it diminishes the potential impact of a work of art—an entire production is often better than reading a play (however a ‘reading’ can be just as good as a bells and whistles show…)—but the second is a little harder to comprehend. After all, who cares if students are adept at decoding and understanding theatre in performance? As I mentioned, theatre and theatrics are all around us. From politicians, to sporting events, to waiters and bar staff, to interactions on the street and so on, we learn how to perform — now seems like a good time to quote “all the world’s a stage.”

The ability to understand theatre enables people to use those tools in their lives. We operate in this performative space every day. Educating people in the way in which we shift roles, adopt language codes, and so on, will enhance our capacity to do so effectively. Otherwise, these actions become internalised uncritically and repeated; it’s just ‘the way it is’. When a group of males establish a hierarchy in a social situation, they’re all performing. When we put on clothes each day, we are performing. The language we choose to use is part of this performance.

Sometimes people never look at another play again after high school. There are not a huge number of plays in bookshops. And bookshops sometimes only have a couple of Shakespeare plays anyway and after high school most never want to touch him again. Who can blame consumers (and therefore bookshops) for not stocking them, if there is no desire for them? And if the only way in is though metonym, synecdoche and iambic pentameter, rather than enjoyment and practical function, why bother at all? And so the consumption of plays and our ability to decode theatre dwindles. Meanwhile, the systems in place where drama operates, both the public and private sphere, continues to inform and guide our interactions and the way we communicate.


King Charles III Copyright Sydney Theatre Company

Playwrights spend a lot of time on their work (which I will get to). There’s an entire vernacular at work in their texts. By the way, though sometimes employed a little differently, their scripts are imbued with all the symbols and metaphors that we identify in Shakespeare too. Plus, there are more playwrights than Shakespeare and some of them may be just as relevant. There are decades of Australian plays that no one reads, let alone performs. Yet, in these plays there is a documentation of life, thoughts, commentary, historicity and unique interactions. Not only should these plays be analysed as texts but also read out loud so that we can talk about how the world has changed. Contrary to common belief Macbeth is not the only exploration of ambition and others have fallen in love since Romeo & Juliet. While these are sterling examples, they’re not the only ones. These are our stories. They warrant repeating. They should not be forgotten.

By shrugging off the mantle of colonial play texts, we can liberate ourselves form our erroneous belief that these are the gold standards for theatre and that anything that does not look like them is necessarily inferior. I understand that this is not a new argument but it is a necessary conclusion as to why bother learning about how and why drama operates, which is my main contention.

The second point I want to make is that we read Shakespeare (and indeed all play texts) at the end of their journey. This is not only true in the case of the 400 years of polish and indoctrination of phrases and narrative structures we see in Shakespeare but even when we read, for example, The Crucible. It has undergone numerous drafts and productions to polish it to the text we read today. Look at Hamilton. It took six years. Aside from writers or people working very closely inside the theatre industry, not many people have seen the first draft of a script. And fewer still have probably seen a hot mess turn into a polished gem. This is not exclusive to Australia, of course, but I don’t think you’d call us a particularly theatre literate culture.

On Saturday 2 April and Sunday 3 April two plays previewed in Sydney. One was King Charles III, presented by Sydney Theatre Company, and written by Mike Bartlett, the other was The Great Fire, presented by Belvoir St Theatre, written by Kit Brookman. No doubt many audience members will see both. However, what many fail to take into consideration is that one had years of thought, then planning, then development, then productions, then a stint on the West End, and a tour of the UK and a stint on Broadway before coming here. The other, while I cannot comment on how many years thought, was on its second preview when I saw it. That is so early. And already it is presented as a piece for people to judge and critique. Indeed, this may be the only chance that show gets to be presented. And audiences do not expect to see it again, or see it develop and change. Those two stages in the life of a show are worlds apart.

What’s more, these two shows are plays written by two playwrights at different stages of their careers. We don’t get to compare Kit’s first draft against Mike’s, nor do we get to pick and choose the best of one and the worst of the other and have a go at trying to choose a ‘winner’. We can’t help but compare and we can’t help but expect ‘perfection’ but we are not often taught how to engage with a play in development. We don’t get to trial something, then restage it, then transfer it, and then tour it. Often a play gets four weeks. And in that time we expect the very best.

I’m not interested in comparing these two plays, I’m simply illustrating the different processes involved as well as the different stages at which we get to see these shows. I’m interested in unpacking notion of what a perfect play is, and what it looks like. Our understanding of this is constructed by years of learning and internalising; we see film more than theatre, we read and see international plays more than Australian. We then impose a rhetoric onto something that may be completely rejecting it. Often, audiences are less comfortable with the unfamiliar, or that which they do not know how to talk about.


The Great Fire. Copyright: Brett Boardman, Belvoir St Theatre

People would say they take all this into consideration. But I’m not convinced they do. And even if they do, the impression of one rather than the other will most likely last longer. Besides, by and large, audiences are not given the chance to engage with a production in development, they’re used to seeing finished shows. And if they read scripts at all, finished scripts. Companies have very little wriggle room to develop a play and playwrights are not always afforded the time and space needed to complete their work. The incredibly limited arts budget expects genius at a fraction of the cost and only very few philanthropists understand how much energy goes into seeing a play completed.

Worse than that though, very few people know how to, and are taught how to, read new plays. It’s really hard. There are mistakes: small ones, like grammar and spelling, bigger ones, like internal logic and consistency, and huge ones, like narrative and structure. How do you know if the play—after years of work—will be any good? And how do you know if it’s actually rather terrible? It’s not an easy task. Even if you think about those that critically panned Sarah Kane or were hesitant to producer in the first place, or how Chekhov and Pinter were panned, in places where more emphasis is placed on theatre and art, it’s a bloody tough gig to look at a play text and have an inkling about what it can turn into.

We should learn. Not only so that we get better at exploring drama’s place in the social fabric, but also so we get better at writing it. So that playwrights and theatre makers are given the chance to develop and grow (and fail). We inject so much into sport and cultivating champions, and teaching people how to build structures and fix a human heart but we expect artists to just have a magic, or inbuilt talent. Plays aren’t written at the drop of a hat. Some people can do that, good for them, some plays are, congratulations, but most playwrights need to learn and most plays take time. We need to learn how to talk to our artists and how to engage in their work.


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