After this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner was prompted to write a piece about the peculiar ‘lack of ambition’ among theatre companies today. Theatre makers, she suggested, increasingly seem to be playing it safe: making shows designed to be crowd-pleasers.
It’s a problem that I definitely recognise as someone who makes theatre. In an industry that’s oversaturated and starved of funding, the increasing need to create career-advancing shows means that (in truth) a lot of our braver ideas find their way to the bottom of the pile.
There’s a tendency to make shows that are safe: adaptations of classic texts; narrowly focussed social issue dramas; comedies about middle class white folk – things that are more likely to sell tickets and get you noticed. Certainly, new work is thriving. But how much of it really breaks boundaries?
My contention is that few of us seem to want to make shows that ask the bigger, more challenging questions. And few of us really dare to innovate with the form. The result is an industry that often feels like it’s failed to evolve.
In the past year I’ve walked out of shows at the National, the Barbican, and the Old Vic. And countless fringe shows. Shows that, though often decent in their way, I found dull and irrelevant. Primarily because they failed to resonate on a personal level. They didn’t speak to me about the world I know.
The truth is, it’s rare to see work that’s catered to millennials and post-millennials: people trapped in a late-capitalist, post-factual fug; people who spend 50% of their time absorbing social media, memes and lifestyle porn; people who look on hopelessly at all they’ve inherited – the drawn-out conflicts, spiralling inequality, the rise of the right, a planet that is set to self-destruct…
If there were an apocalypse tomorrow and all that was left was an archive of the nation’s theatrical output – alien anthropologists would probably struggle to work out what the experience of living in the twenty-first century is really like.
Few of us appear to be asking ourselves: what does theatre have to be if it is to reflect and respond to the world that we live in?
Of course there are some honourable exceptions
Bold, challenging and contemporary plays written by playwrights like Anna Jordan, Tanika Gupta, Adam Brace, Philip Ridley, Mike Bartlett and Alice Birch, or created by theatre markers like Ontroerend Goed, Made in China, Kim Noble, Forced Entertainment and SheShePop, and directors like Thomas Ostermeier, Simon Stone and Katie Mitchell. Of course, these are just the people whose work I’m aware of…
But even after taking all these individuals into account: it still seems clear, as Lyn Garner has confirmed, that this kind of work is the exception. In particular – shows by younger companies (who should really be doing the most to change things) that can be seen to break the mould and speak to the present are becoming increasingly uncommon.
And so I was excited to discover Domestica earlier this week, a new play devised by Sammy Metcalfe and his company Sleepwalk Collective.
Sleepwalk Collective are a live art and experimental theatre group based between Spain and the UK. They’ve been making shows together for ten years – creating work that is typically deadpan, minimalist and multimedia heavy.
I’d only seen one show of theirs before this one: a performance piece called Karaoke, in which two performers follow instructions relayed through an autocue. I liked that show. It was a kind of deadpan reflection on pop culture, consumerism and death. Almost the theatrical equivalent of a novel by Tao Lin.
Their latest show, however, is something really special.
Domestica is about history and art, and how we define ourselves in relation to these two things. It feels deeply personal, with three female performers addressing the audience directly and talking about the artworks that have defined them over the course of their lives.
Gender is a recurring theme: whether it be Botticelli’s Venus protecting her modesty, Chekhov’s three bored sisters decaying on their imagined country estate, or Disney’s Snow White – the performers struggle with the impression that history is strewn with the corpses of women defined by their relation to men.
In reflecting on this, the play makes a wider point about how history defines us. Like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel of History – we might be moving forward, but it’s not easy to take our eyes off the wreckage of the past.
Domestica is a show about what it means to be alive in the present and yet to be defined by the past. It’s about the mixed feelings that we all have in response to human history: the impotence, the rage and the affection. And it’s about that sensation that we in this present historical moment are all aware of – of being different and yet the same: familiar with our past and yet deeply estranged from it.
But it’s not just the subject matter that makes this piece feel prescient. It’s also its form.
Domestica is a kind of multimedia essay accompanied by images on multiple screens and a musique concrete ambient drone. It’s part visual bombardment, part manifesto. In other words it refuses to sit idly by, as plays so often do, expecting audiences to do most of the work. Instead, it sticks its neck out. It says loudly and unapologetically: this is how we see the world.
Not to say that Domestica is didactic: it is just as nuanced and undecided as any play. The real thing that marks it apart is it’s immediacy. We are appealed to in an up-front way, and on a personal level. It feels more like a gig or a lecture or a confession than a play, in terms of how directly it appeals to its audience.
I think it is this, more than anything else, that compels me to single it out as a production that upsets conventions and speaks to the present.
Increasingly, I feel like this kind of directness is exactly what is needed to make theatre relevant again.
Caught in this precise cultural moment, in which we are so easily distracted and in which our problems are so vastly complex – it often feels like the kind of plays that we need simply in order to reach through to people are those that cut out all of the illusions, push through the fourth wall and speak on equal terms with their audiences about things that matter to them. Shows that don’t shy away from attempting to convey an understanding of the world, even if the makers feel under-qualified, and if their vision is hesitating and ambivalent.
Maybe theatre has to become more of an intervention if it is to interrupt or have any impact upon a reality that is mediated through our mobile phones and in which few of us are willing to commit to statements of belief or intent.
Domestica is not the first show I’ve seen to explore ways of making theatre appeal more directly to its audience in this way. Or to be so bold in terms of how much it tries to say. I saw something similar in Christian Brett Bailey’s brilliant This Is How We Die at Oval House a year or two ago, and in Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone at the Edinburgh Traverse. And of course shows like this have resonances with earlier moments in performance history: John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, or Valerie Solanas reading excerpts from the SCUM manifesto during Velvet Underground gigs.
But none of that diminishes Domestica’s status as a bravely innovative work: a play that tackles challenging and prescient questions, whilst innovating with the form in ways that give it simplicity, immediacy and strength.
It’s a sadly rare example of a company really combatting the threat of irrelevance that all theatre makers currently face.
I’m excited to see what the future holds for Sleepwalk Collective.