Monday, 21 December 2009

The Habit of Art

London is full of slush. I had lunch with Patrick and Claire from Tfac, over here for Christmas, and we talked through a couple of ideas for bringing further performance skills into some of the facilitator training back in Malawi, particularly as a way of collating evidence for baseline assessments through improvisation. Monitoring attitudes towards safe sex is one of the key tools used to prove the work is ultimately effective in HIV/AIDS reduction and helps funders decide whether to support the work or not.

Boal's notion of 'The Joker' - a figure able to mitigate the relationship between the audience and actors seems a way forward. In effect we'd monitor behaviour and attitude amongst participants, through forum work - taking them through three or four increasingly complicated provocations with the facilitators trained as jokers to regulate the level of antagonism offered. In this way we'd build in the flexibility to complicate the improvisations and hope to overcome the problem of participants revealing what they think we'd like to see, rather than there own behaviour. I argue that this would produce a more authentic set of results. It's a fusion of sociological research and play.

In the evening I went to the National to see The Habit of Art. It's a complex, layered and deeply melancholic play. Early in the season the theatre premiered The Power of Yes, a play essentially about the inability to write a play about the credit crunch. Now Alan Bennett has given us a play that also comes at it's subject sideways.

The conceit is that a National Theatre Company are rehearsing a new work about an imagined meeting between the poet W.H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. As the director has been called away to a conference on the future of regional theatre in Leeds - the rehearsal is left in the capable hands of the stage manager, brilliantly played by Frances De La Tour. This Pirandello type set up gives volume for any number of knowing jokes and debates about rehearsals, the role and relationships between key creative figures in the process, theatre itself, as well as providing a tiny window into both artists' desire to create and the personal cost of doing so. Ironically the clever triple frame of watching an NT play about a rehearsal of a NT play allows Bennett to defend the very act of crafting a tuned, nuanced script rather than indulging for the sake of it in the visual or experimental.

It's heavy weight work, peppered with excellent performances Richard Griffiths nobly inheriting Auden, a part clearly written for Michael Gambon, Alex Jennings wonderful as Britten. Elliot Levey and Adrian Scarborough offer super support as the over protective playwrite and the under developed character. Ultimately I felt I'd been taken on a meandering journey exploring a topic with no particular thesis before being landed smoothly back to earth. In a final moment the stage manager checks the empty room and turns out the lights, knowing we'll all be back tomorrow. Perhaps, after all, that is all that can be truthfully said about theatre.

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