Theatre isn’t all about text. On Saturday I went to the opening night performance of this year’s London International Mime Festival, which for the last 29 years has stubbornly – but often resourcefully – been trying to offer an alternative to the text-based box that most of British theatre operates within. The opening show at the Purcell Room, by a young French dancer/acrobat called Jean-Baptise Andre, was certainly about movement: so much so that early on it felt like a piece of dazzlingly-crafted modern dance as much as a mime festival event. But soon it derailed into the formulaic patterns of a lot of non-verbal theatre: sounds being produced without meaning, effects instead of sense. Perhaps you need a non-literal imagination to follow it; but I was lost. Maybe it’s a specialist club you need to join before you can appreciate it.
On the other hand, yesterday I visited the Tate Modern, that vast cathedral to art in which the gallery itself is a piece of living theatre, especially now with those glorious silver slides plunging through the vertical drops of the turbine hall taking squealing visitors from the top and middle levels to the bottom floor (it’s a pity, though, about the long queues for tickets to participate: the middle slides were hardly being used at all, yet no one could go on them without getting a ticket first). But here, too – on a teaming Sunday afternoon – the public were not only actively engaging in art, but engaged by it: the Tate truly is a place of art for all, and there’s no need for membership of the club first. Though, as it happens, I did go with a paid-up member – which meant we got to visit the final day of the Fischli and Weiss exhibition for free. These multi-media Swiss artists – who work in photography, clay and rubber sculpture, video, film and slide projections – create playful two and three-dimensional art that is by turns witty, intriguing and beautiful.
I am reminded of these visually-based weekend activities by Michael Billington’s feature in today’s Guardian on the past decade of the Royal Court’s life under departing Ian Rickson, as Rickson prepares to hand the artistic reigns to Dominic Cooke. In Michael’s article, he wonders what the Court means today, and where its future lies. He points out that whereas the Court had a virtual monopoly on new writing in 1956, when the English Stage Company took it over, there is now keen competition from the Bush, Hampstead, Tricycle, Soho, National and RSC, not to mention the fact that “regional theatres up and down the land are hungry for local writers.” He goes on to say that “Living dramatists, you might think, have never had it so good. Yet there is a strong opposition that argues that the future lies elsewhere – that young audiences are bored with text-based plays, and crave group-devised work, visual and physical theatre and site-specific experiments.”
Great strides have certainly been made in these areas of experimentation over the last decade, but for Michael, the play(wright) is still the thing: “Rather than reflecting this hectic eclecticism,” he suggests, “I passionately believe that the Court should continue to fulfil its historic role: that of putting the writer at the centre of the theatrical event.”
He therefore praises Ian Rickson’s regime – of which, he says, the prevailing critical view is that he “has been a safe pair of hands, but a tad unexciting” – for “his obstinate belief in the solo writer”, and in particular, for nurturing a generation of dramatists.” While Rickson’s predecessor Stephen Daldry had thrown open the doors of the Court to “a brazen, buccaneering new gang” that included Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Martin McDonagh, Joe Penhall, Jez Butterworth and Nick Grosso amongst others”, he writes that “it was Rickson who ensured that writers went on to deliver their second and third plays, the hardest thing for a dramatist in our impatient culture where people are always frantically seeking the next new thing, rather than admiring maturing talent…. As Rickson himself says, his aim was to create ‘a sustainable culture’ for young writers, and he has largely achieved that.”
Rickson, feels Billington, may have failed when it comes to “overly political work” – though he does acknowledge that plays like My Name is Rachel Corrie, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Rock ‘n’ Roll were done on his watch – but says that “since Rickson’s tenure has coincided with Tony Blair’s in Downing Street, I am disappointed the Court has not done more to reflect a tumultuous decade in British life.”
So the challenge to Rickson’s successor Dominic Cooke, according to Billington, “lies in stimulating work that reflects the diversity of modern Britain”. He hopes for plays that reflect the Scottish renaissance, the nation’s ethnic minorities, and plays that will analyse the “tarnished legacy” of “the great illusionist”, Tony Blair.
But most of all Michael hopes for this to be achieved through the Court’s historic commitment to the “solo dramatist.” At a time when theatre more than ever seems to be about collaboration, it may be an old-fashioned belief – but it’s a very welcome one: there may be all sorts of new ways of telling stories on stage, but someone has to write them. And the absence of a playwright creates a vacuum that the Mime Festival show I saw cannot fill.