Theatre Today: Time to look further than entertainment! (PART TWO)

In Part One of this article, I expressed my own beliefs on the role that theatre now holds in modern society. Specifically, I expressed my disappointment at the fact theatre has, like the modern media, become merely a conduit for the entertainment that the modern person craves to get away from the stressful and tiring world of work. This, as I pointed out, has become particularly prevalent in the Western world, where we marvel at a world of technology that is slowly closing the gap between what we see is real and simply a projection. However, I also pointed out that I myself love what we see in the cinema and on our TV screens today, and so I refuse to decry it in any way.

But right now, I want to prove that the theatre was once an integral part of countries and their people all over the world, and that the power it once had could, and should be revived again. This was certainly the case back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which spawned a whole generation of inspirational practitioners, and I want to pick out two specific examples.
Firstly, I want to look at a Frenchman by the name of Antonin Artaud. Amongst anyone connected with theatre his name is synonymous with his manifestos on the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ whose ideas began to first emerge in around 1932, a theory that is still widely explored and practiced to this day. The ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ looked to immerse its audiences, whether they wished it or not, into a theatrical world that stimulated the primal instincts within us such as fear, anger and lust, and it was a backlash against the theatre of the bourgeoisie that was occupying theatres around that time. Indeed, in February 1925 he started to let his feelings be known when he sent a letter to the Director of the ‘Comedie Francaise’ saying that the bourgeois style of theatre had ‘infested the news long enough’.
Despite his fascinating theories on the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, Artaud ultimately struggled to execute his ideas on-stage appropriately, and his era ended in 1948 with his alleged suicide.
However, to this day his influence still has a sub-conscious hold over a lot theatrical techniques and types of performance in the present day. The most notable examples of his influence are the Cirque du Soleil and the ‘In-Yer-Face Theatre’ movement of the early 1990’s. The general notion of some practitioners and performers in modern theatre that look to shock and engage their audiences through our primal instincts is an example of his work, and how he looked to topple what he saw as a boring and conservative form of theatre, to break the mould if you will. Despite the fact that his ideas may be seen as slightly taboo or excessive in theatre today, the ability we still have on-stage to truly engage our audiences minds and souls shows that his legacy lives on.
All the way across Eastern Europe, several years before the rise of Artaud, in Soviet Russia there had emerged a practitioner by the name of Vsevelod Meyerhold, a practitioner that, to this day, is still revered in Russia as one of the most inspirational and revolutionary Russian and European practitioners of all time.
Meyehold came to the forefront in November 1906, and despite being offered only minor roles as an actor in Moscow and St Petersburg, he and a fellow actor, Alexander Kosheverov hired the Municipal Theatre in Kherson, Ukraine, where they embarked on a directorial season that saw them present the works of the likes of Chekhov, Ibsen and Tolstoy, all highly considered playwrights of the time.
Most significantly, however, were his works for propagandist theatre in Russia several years later (something difficult to expand upon without writing a separate article!), and for his school of ‘Biomechanics’, which focused on training upcoming actors in Russia by means of utilising the human body to the best of its physical ability on stage.
In essence, his school of Biomechanics has had a huge influence on the physical preparations actors undergo for performance over the decades, and, although there have been vast changes since his time, his work has had an invaluable effect on how actors prepare physically for their performances in theatres across Europe!
Now I think it is important to say that I could elaborate greatly on either of these examples, and go on in great detail as to the true extent of their influences in modern theatre through a period of over a century. Furthermore, I could name many more examples of inspirational practitioners that were also radical and thought-provoking in their ideas, but that is not entirely the purpose of this article.
I want to finish by saying that the modern theatre director and spectator should truly look at the work that the likes of Meyerhold and Artaud did for the spectacle that modern theatre can and should be. In the case of Meyerhold for instance, looking for original and radical ideas that will allow our performers to explore different spectrums of the acting world, which will, in turn, open a wider range of possibilities as to how we can re-ignite the spark that theatre so rightfully earned and should have right now!
Then, in the case of Artaud, look to break the mould that we seem so happy to keep intact for fear of displeasing our audiences, and for challenging our audiences with the prospect of the unfamiliar and the unknown. I do not propose that we take a brash and anarchic approach that completely obliterates the current structure of theatre, nor do I encourage a theatre that looks to outright rebel against anything that stands against it. What I do encourage and wish for however, is a theatre that merely is not simply another medium for routine entertainment, but a theatre that looks to question and challenge what it’s audiences believes and does, and to once again find the fantastically articulate voice it can offer for the people of the world who look to challenge the norms, the politics, and the balance of all that we know!

BY: ROBERT PRITCHARD