Mark Fisher: Artists are used to being misunderstood

The Divide rehearsals
The Divide rehearsals
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There is a fascinating podcast in Chris Goode’s Thompson’s Live series in which the theatre-maker talks to Jon Haynes and David Woods of Ridiculusmus.

When the discussion turns to reviewers, Woods weighs in with a bugbear. What annoys him is when a critic fails to appreciate that what they see on stage was what the creators intended them to see.

“The basic criteria for a critic should be that they come to your offer and you don’t get measured against their set of values,” he says. “As a critic, you’ve got to say, ‘They’ve made that decision.’ You’ve got to have that faith that it’s not just a lazy accident.”

Being wilfully misunderstood is a common frustration among artists and it’s a theme central to Wild Bore, a ribald piece of self-referential cabaret by performance artists Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott.

Building – and rebuilding – the show in response to their negative reviews (including, with glorious circularity, reviews of Wild Bore itself), they have much fun puncturing critical pomposity and sending up meaningless journalistic flannel. Easy targets, perhaps, but no harm in letting off steam, especially in the self-aware context of a festival. That they bare their buttocks or don bottom-like headwear to talk out of their arses gives you an idea of the scatological tone.

So far, so frivolous, but they also have a more serious point to make about critical discussion, whether it be by professional reviewers or audiences trying to engage in the work. Dented egos aside, it’s not a question of a critic having to like the work (Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott seem to enjoy a good panning as much as Diana Rigg did in No Turn Unstoned), it’s about a critic meeting the work on its own terms and judging it accordingly.

What if the apology by the stage manager for the late start were part of the show? What if it were no coincidence that three people walk out just before a discussion about walk-outs? What if the rough-and-ready atmosphere of chaos were an aesthetic choice and not a sign of incompetence? What if the joke were on you, the critic, for not having the imagination to see beyond appearances?

Of course, the world isn’t going to end because of a few blinkered theatre critics, but Wild Bore also suggests that if the terms of the wider critical debate are being set by a narrow group of unreflexive arbiters of taste, then only a certain kind of art will proliferate. To prove its point, the show then unleashes its own internal critic in the form of Krishna Istha whose queer perspective questions the privilege and assumptions of the three named creators.

That Istha goes unaccredited until the end of the show could be taken as an insult. Or it could be taken as the point. It’s almost as if they’ve thought about it.

There’s another example when we return to Chris Goode. He’s the co-writer of Eve, Jo Clifford’s memoir about a life lived as a woman trapped in a man’s body and her eventual transition from John to Jo. Goode is a prolific theatre-maker and Clifford has 90 plays to her name. That should be reassurance enough to know it can’t have escaped their notice that the form of Eve is quietly experimental. Rather than a conventional drama with protagonist set against antagonist and with an issue in need of resolution, this National Theatre of Scotland production is theatre as self-portrait. Clifford has never written anything quite like it.

It’s a woman looking back over her childhood, her coming of age, her falling in love, of being both father and grandmother, and of finding some kind of peace. To my mind, it’s a form better suited to journalism than theatre (reader, I have written that article), resting too heavily on our natural empathy for the performer and her personal story. Like this year’s other first-person plays on a transgender theme (Adam starring Adam Kashmiry and You’ve Changed starring Kate O’Donnell), it describes the sense of alienation, the acts of discrimination and the trials of transition, but gives too little distance and no alternative perspective on the material. I miss the drama.

Yet that is the form the playwrights have chosen to adopt, and it’s fascinating that for her 91st play, Clifford is still willing to question the idea of what a piece of theatre could be. The same can be said for Alan Ayckbourn who, with an output comparable to that of Clifford, is still prepared to reinvent the wheel. The Divide is an Ayckbourn play without French windows, patios or drinks trolleys. In place of conventional dialogue, it has letters, diary entries and official memos. Oh, and it’s six hours long.

The surprise of Annabel Bolton’s Old Vic production in the Edinburgh International Festival is how little like an experiment this seems. So seamlessly has she stitched together the faux documentary evidence gathered by historians in 2201 about events a century earlier that you hardly notice the unusual form. It helps the story skip by, even if a bit more friction wouldn’t go amiss. Only in the lecture format of the opening scene and the moment several hours in when we get to see the large choir for the first time (singing an excellent score by Christopher Nightingale) does the production feel like it’s pushing at theatrical form.

More typically, this tale of a society forced by plague to split itself down gender lines rattles on with the narrative pull of a box-set binge. Winning performances by Erin Doherty, Jake Davies and Weruche Opia, caught in a love triangle with Romeo and Juliet undertones, keep up the what-happens-next tension even when nothing much does happen next; watchable though it is, the production doesn’t justify its length. Nor does it come off well in comparison with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a similar dystopian vision in which the sense of jeopardy is greater, the tension higher and the political parallels more acute.

Wild Bore, Traverse, until 27 August; Eve, Traverse, until 27 August; The Divide, King’s Theatre, ends today