On physical theatre

This week I’m in pre-publicity for the Australian launch of the new novel Sphinx and back in London.
I’ve seen three theatrical productions in seven days – the first ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ was written by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka in the 1950’s.Set in 1943 it is a statement about the impact of British colonialism in Africa. This production at the National theatre has revamped some of the original text and pushed racial and class issues in a dramatic (and incredibly effective manner) by putting the black cast members into ‘white face’ to play the English characters – thus throwing up a multitude of issues – the predominantly white audience’s preconceptions about black actors, the way the local Nigerian characters view their colonial masters and emphasising the theme of ritual which runs right through the play.
It is the story of a local tribal leader who is also the horseman of the king who has died a month before. Tradition dictates that the king’s horseman must commit suicide and join the spirit of the King and his horse and dog, as they make their mythical way up to heaven. If this does not happen the King’s spirit will not be put to rest.

Stylistically the production works in two languages – one is the poetic language (almost Shakespearian) of the local Africans – the market women and their queen, the buffoonery of the colonial police (local ‘christianised’ Africans). Their intense dancing and celebration is a stark contrast to the rigid costume ball that is being put on by the colonial English the very same night. When the head of the colony (along with his wife) decides to wear for the costume ball two costumes that are confiscated religious costumes from a local death cult and signify Death, he is completely indifferent to how disrespectful this might appear to his superstitious black staff and the local populace. This gives the audience an instant understanding of the massive gulf between the two cultures. The arrogance of this colonial overlord is further emphasised when he prevents the Horseman from committing ritual suicide thus condemning the tribal chief to social rejection and a living death. The Englishman has also unwittingly set off an even more tragic set of circumstances.

The second production I saw was Stephen Berkoff’s production of the screenplay; On the Waterfront at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. I have been a fan of Berkoff’s for years, having followed his work since seeing East (great play about English skinheads) at the Half-Moon theatre in the 1970s. He is famous for his holistic approach and physicality of interpretation of text and this production was no exception. Although surprisingly it was quite literal in its story telling and anyone who knows the movie would recognise it immediately. The strengths of the production (as in Death and the King’s horseman) were the inherent theatricality and image making – literally making images out of actors, gestures, even emotions – a pushing of reality. This linked both productions and was a reminder why I go to theatre at all. Berkoff’s emphasis on testosterone and the advert masculinity of both the dockworkers and the thugs, as well as a great Irishness, to the characters worked brilliantly.

The third production I saw was Le Clique (at the Hippodrome – a fantastically atmospheric venue that was dark for a year or so) in Leicester Square. A loose ensemble of cabaret acts bordering on burlesque this show reflects a growing trend in Europe for sexy escapist circus. Sitting there surrounding by the city boys and girls (some still dressed for the office) on a late Friday night show, no doubt shaking off recession blues it was an infinitely more forgiving audience than a straight theatre audience- and reminded me of how the old music halls with their upbeat Larrikin sensibility must have been like. Interestingly there seems to be a growing need for comic circus and physical theatre that pushes both the audience’s imagination and sense of trepidation. The other notable aspect was the age difference between the audiences – with a noticeably younger audience at Le Clique, but I am heartened by a swing towards live performance (this is also reflected in the live music scene) generally. I suspect entertainment is ultimately a collective experience.

Happy Anzac day all Australian readers!