quotes in this post are taken from company websites
Feels like ages since I last dissed Shakespeare. As ardent readers of this journal may have noticed, I have no time for the fellow and consider him directly responsible for the complacently novelistic condition of much British mainstream theatre. (Yes, I know it doesn’t follow but it does when you hear my argument about it which I can’t be bothered to rehearse here because it’ll slow me up.) Nevertheless, we took our girls to his theatre the other day, to see Footsbarn do ‘A Shakespeare Party’. It’s not uninteresting going into the Globe because you succumb to the feeling that ‘this is how it was’ quite readily and find yourself studying the joinery with an uncharacteristic intentness. I was also surprised to find myself wondering about Elizabethan Health & Safety sensibilities (fairly rudimentary) and the extent to which the architects of Globe II had to accommodate the current mildly hystericised concern about such matters. There is, I’m sure, an easily obtained illustrated booklet that would lay my curiosity to rest. Stout modern handrails are in evidence.
And it’s nice sitting up in the Upper Gallery, despite the price. Not only does the tiered globularity enable good views of the stage but you can study all the other tiers and the groundlings (a fiver) at your leisure. At first I rather sweetly thought that this emblematised some sort of olden days egalitarianism but then I corrected myself: wherever you sit (or stand) you can see who can afford what and assess precisely how much better or worse their view is than yours. You know where you are. In our seats, in fact, the view of the audience was excellent and that of the stage okay. I didn’t mind this.
Then the show started. But first some context (from The Guardian article by Lyn Gardner here): ‘It is a quarter of a century since Footsbarn was resident in the UK, but its name has passed into theatrical legend as a once-great British company that we somehow allowed to get away. Now based in a farmhouse in the Auvergne region of France, where its members dream of founding a theatre school, the company grew out of a meeting between student actors Oliver Foot and John Paul Cook at Goddard College in the US, a college with a strong tradition in radical theatre, at the end of the 1960s. Back in Foot’s native Cornwall in 1971, the pair set up Footsbarn (taking its name from the barn owned by Foot’s family, where the company initially lived and worked) and travelled around the south-west, setting up a tent on Cornish cliffs and Somerset village greens, and putting on theatre for local people.’
‘The company’s aesthetic was make-and-do; a magpie approach using found materials and alighting on anything its members admired in the work of theatre-makers from Grotowski to Brook. Its pick-and-mix bag of styles appealed to new audiences. In the words of company member Paddy Hayter, who joined Footsbarn soon after it started and never left, bringing up his children on the road: “We share a performance with the audience, rather than perform it for them.” When (the Globe Theatre’s artistic director Dominic) Dromgoole caught a performance of Hamlet in Somerset in the late 1970s, the audience were so enjoying the grave-digger scene played by clowns that it went on for more than 20 minutes. Dromgoole remarked on this to a company member. “This is nothing,” he replied. “You should have been here last night. It lasted an hour, and the audience still didn’t want it to stop.”‘
There are a number of British alternative performance companies who have made their bases either in the countryside or small towns. Forkbeard Fantasy, for example, have been based in the depths of Devon since 1974 and appear entirely indifferent to urban allure. Welfare State International, founded in 1968, settled for much of their performing life in Cumbria, while I.O.U Theatre, which broke away from Welfare State in 1976, are based in Halifax in West Yorkshire.
With the exception of Forkbeard Fantasy, whose work has a fevered, zany quality that sets it apart from the others, the groups produce work that, in the words of John Fox and Sue Gill, founders of Welfare State, situates them in the ‘celebratory arts movement’. Fox and Gill devised ‘fire festivals, lantern parades, rites of passage, community carnivals and site-specific theatre’.
In 2003, I.O.U, who often work with ‘giant mechanical props’, presented ‘Tattoo’ in which ‘A fuming army of petrol driven insects are in erratic pursuit of a monstrous mechanical egg factory. Venting gooey foam along the way, this towering structure ambles through the audience attempting to keep its precious crop from the clutches of the marauding swarm.’ The work of both groups is often spectacular in scale and in detail, features bizarre structures, grotesque costumes, masks and make-up and presents audiences with work that, at its best, is startling, intensely imagistic and, importantly, demonstrates that ‘celebration’ need not be civic or even especially wholesome.
The celebratory qualities of Footsbarn involve ‘transcending the barrier of language with its unique blend of visual theatre, music and magic.’ The company focuses on the work of Shakespeare and Moliere and has performed much of its work in its own circus big tops. ‘A Shakespeare Party’ features highlights from, among others, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, strung together in a loose but festive manner. The festive manner consistently grates and exemplifies some of the fundamental flaws in what could be called the ‘sunny side’ of the celebratory arts movement.
It would be naive to assume that when playing happy characters on stage, actors themselves are happy. We are also familiar with the assumption that Cheerful Charlie Chuckles, the widely admired comic entertainer, is himself a fount of irrepressible joy around the house. We know, in fact, that Charlie is often a morose sot who comes to life on stage and does a good job. The problem with ‘sunny side celebration’, as profiled above, is that we are expected to believe that, unlike those who merely perform jollity, sunny side celebrants are actually jolly and, when they lay aside their ribbons, bladders, confetti and amusing bottoms at the end of a hard day’s capering, continue to celebrate, possibly in a slightly lower key, the very fact of being alive.
The idea that there is something to celebrate, above and beyond weddings, betrothals, comings of age etc holds, unlike the bladder, little water. I recall being told, almost on a daily basis, throughout the 60s, that there was a level of consciousness, within us all, akin to bliss. While I have no problem with the idea that we are all potential ecstatics – trainspotters, for example, have mastered the acquisition of this unnecessarily occulted condition – we should not confuse ecstasy with bliss. Ecstasy is a satisfying state based on the elimination of diverting stimuli by absorption into a single, fixating stimulus, as avid television watchers have discovered. Bliss seems to be, according to its fans, a state that is simply there, if only you could get to it. Whether it’s out there or in there is a matter of resistible debate.
So to get into bliss what you have to do is strip away all the layers of shit that prevent you getting into it. It’s not an unattractive idea. The trouble is it can’t be done. It’s possible that certain strong drugs or ritual privations might momentarily reveal glimpses of something very bright and extremely cheerful but this is a minority practice requiring a dedicated lifestyle. Most people seek out diversions that work okay for them. If it works it’s a psychological achievement, not a mythological transformation. It tends not to last, which is a bummer.
Sunny side celebrants are fundamentally irritating because their colourful jollifying suggests a permanently open line to that which is celebratable. When these people take off their wigs they’re still clowns! When they brush their teeth they’re celebrating the rhythms and sensuality of the operation! Even when they’re not happy they are happy!
The sunny siders move through the masses of the morose purporting to engage them in ways which will facilitate the casting-off of time-based sorrow. Gazing around the audience from my perch in the Upper Gallery of the Globe I thought I could see a simultaneous engagedness and quizzicality on many faces. A common expression involved a fixed smile that would indicate enjoyment were it more mobile and an anxious tension around the eyes suggesting the difficulty associated with the need to withstand the torrential effusiveness. I’m not suggesting that the audience members were uptight bastards incapable of having a good time, far from it. It’s just tricky, not to say burdensome, regressing yourself to the nursery level that might enable you to identify with the jollity.
When, after capering through the groundling audience playing olden days musical instruments, members of the cast present an enactment of the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ playlet from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the Footsbarn aesthetic reaches its limits. The excerpt is presented as broad slapstick with yokel vocals and much clown-based bottomwork. At one point a bumpkin sticks a sword up another bumpkin’s arse, pulls it out then sniffs it disgustedly. I thought this wasn’t too bad – clowning, after all, derives great energy from re-presenting highlights from toilet training and, in the classic spilt paint/thrown water set-pieces of the family circus, ventilates the tensions implicit in the lifelong maintenance of a suite of highly trained sphincter muscles.
The problem is that if Elizabethan humour was relatively coarse and Footsbarn wish to make, so to speak, a stab at it, then they have to accommodate their audience’s disaffection with its lack of sophistication. Again, I’m not suggesting that sophisticates don’t laugh at toilet humour but that they like their toilet humour presented within a contemporary aesthetic rather than framed by the paradoxically wholesome didactic project of ‘taking a journey into Shakespeare’s world’. In brief: Shakespeare’s humour has been shit for a long time and nothing can be done about it. About the only recourse left to a director is to entrust the comedic episodes to exceptionally skilled comic actors who might compensate for the obsolete text and its mirthless situations by the application of inordinate amounts of energy. There are a number of very assured comic actors in the Footsbarn ensemble but the company is, nevertheless, caught between two stools (cheeky!): the tendency to modernise runs up against the fact that the ‘comic’ (and proto-celebratory) texts are intractable and insufferable while the heritage industry invitation to the ‘Late Medieval World’ theme park, if it features ‘authenticity’ achieved by the minimising of sophistication, risks alienating most adults and many children.
The jollity at the Globe was reminiscent of the mania of disc-jockeys. The late and lamented John Peel – himself an exemplar of non-sunny side genial moroseness – used to tell the tale of his employment, at the beginning of his career, by a Dallas radio station whose management requested that, while on air, he speak ‘with a laugh in his voice’. Peel’s anecdote, aired more than once on Radio 1, would culminate with a pleasing demonstration of this jollified vocalisation. His colleagues were largely not sensible of the possibility that Peel’s critique applied very much to themselves and their crazed cheeriness. Radio DJ celebratory speaking styles suggest nothing so much as panic and anxiety, given that it is not possible to locate the celebratable on a 24 hour basis.
Sunny siders, despite their justifiable antipathy to straight show business culture, are purveyors, ultimately, of depression. Celebratory art, when disconnected from august occasions, generates and – can one say this unglibly? – celebrates depression. Only the depressed would wish to display their mania vocationally. Their witnesses are drawn into unwilling reciprocation: the injunction to be up is a downer.