The Revolution is Now: recent theatre & review

Ben Brantley, theatre critic of The New York Times, has done a quick swing through the highlights of theatrical London, I guess for the behoof of his readers who may be planning a trip. He takes in Ralph Fiennes as Richard III, Harry Potter on stage, the Jesse Eisenberg self-penned star vehicle which leads into thoughts on theatre offering sanctuary to the 'politically displaced and socially marginalised', adds some discussion about the recent political shenanigans, includes a bit of a backhander to Kenneth Branagh's Romeo and Juliet and the National Theatre's The Plough and the Stars, recounts a lachrymose visit to a Brian Friel revival, alludes to something very short from Caryl Churchill and a recreation on the South Bank of an arts space set up in the refugee camp in Calais.

Nice work if you can get it. I wonder where he stayed?

Don't get me wrong, as a fellow colonial I'm just as in awe as he is of London's theatrical royalty. Nowhere else comes close to such rarified treats. On his own patch of course, he's a prince among that fearsome cohort of Broadway critics, who can close a show quicker than you can say Laurence Olivier.

Critics, in the general imagination (when they appear in the movies that is) are generally evil, scheming, often alcoholic misanthropes, a step behind the times, a malevolent, malicious, counterweight to the innocent, striving, misunderstood artist perennially one kind word away from the workhouse.

This kind of critic is the market made flesh. There's only one kind of play and that's a successful one.

If Ben Brantley, assassin in chief, needs to put a new edge on his analytical skills in a city not his own, a bit of a re-calibration of his standard measure, apply a dash of polish to his rapier wit, ready for another plunge into the global artistic scene, mixing it with movie stars and moguls, the heavy hitters of the entertainment-industrial complex, then why not London where, as he says, 'you know these are scary times when Richard III starts to look like real life.'

Well, we're in Brighton, and there are different forces at play.

Absent the star power and political dalliances of national implication, theatre has to look to the basics, what can be done with the simplest of resources.

In that spirit, here is my stay-at-home junket, my swing through a few of the productions I've seen recently, those which did something memorable, ground breaking even, with very little.

The first which really took me by surprise was in Eastbourne, at their cute little Regency theatre. A Shakespeare double, presented by the same five actors. Your worst nightmare? And did I mention killing three hours odd in Eastbourne, by myself, watching coffee shops close one by one? I went for the matinee and stayed for the evening show, completely knocked out.

The company was Merely Theatre, and they did something genuinely radical, though very simple. Each role was rehearsed by two actors, in their case, a man and a woman, but in performance only one actor plays the role or roles. So the full company of ten can be split into two companies of five on the road, and these companies of five can change and re-arrange, almost kaleidoscopically.

What effect does this have on performance? You're only seeing one actor in each role at a time.

I didn't see the other five actors, but their presence is felt. Sitting in the audience it is easy to imagine how it would be in rehearsal, the two actors working as a team to present each role, taking turns, one doing a section while the other watches and then vice versa, pushing each other to be clearer, to come up with another way, of competing to be more inventive, sharper. In effect, each actor has to genuinely connect with the actor watching, just as they later connect with the audience. And they are able to become the audience themselves, to watch as the other actor also rehearses the role, just as later the audience will watch.

The radical act is to upend the concept of ownership of a role by a particular actor in a particular production. The actors have to share ownership, they have to find common ground around something both own, or neither own.

And the ultimate effect? What they do is clear as crystal. And they connect to the audience. As an audience member you feel involved, connected, implicit, almost as if you were working with the actors. Ownership is shared. It was an extraordinary experience.

Another surprise was Sussex University Drama students in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. (A bonus was the first view of the newly renovated Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Gardner Arts centre that was.)

The students presented the play, rather than performed it straight as it were, stepping out of their roles to speak directly to the audience and adding speeches which they spoke as themselves, rather than as their character. They took a rather satirical, sardonic, facetious, gently mocking, approach, undergraduate humour at its best, which seemed to fit the material and made the crinolines and bare saplings, Chekhov staples, seem both silly and relevant.

But what came across with real force was the sense that these students didn't see the future with hope. Their generation had to confront the fact that they would be worse off than their parents. That things could only get worse. And this seemed to suddenly make sense of Chekhov, that his time rhymed disconcertingly with our own.

In much less salubrious surroundings, Popup Opera presented a work by Bellini, surely the oddest choice for a company with little but the clothes they stood up in and some portable neon light fittings lying on the floor of a church in a state of dilapidation.

A decade or so ago I saw a production at the Royal Opera House of Pagliacci, extended from one act to fill an evening, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Placido Domingo, set in what was meant to be a realistic looking Naples but which came across as an amateur production of Grease that was trying too hard.

Popup Opera, conversely, managed with almost nothing, to remind us where Bellini actually came from, the poverty of Sicily and Naples, that these operas aren't naturally at home in great opera houses, with chandeliers and staircases, but in decaying cities, run by mafia families, where violence and fear is an everyday experience.

Finally, a film, perhaps not the best film you've ever seen, but a film which belongs to the actors, not the director or the money people or the computer generated effects. The Commune is perhaps not even the best film from Thomas Vinterberg, who made Festen, and who created the Dogme dogma back in the 90s, but it is a reminder of those essential first principles, that with simplicity comes something absolutely vital, ownership returning to where it belongs.

The industrial revolution made people the servants of machines and artists reacted by putting people, with their infinite variation and sublime potential, at the centre of their art. It was the age of Dickens and Balzac, Wordsworth, Constable and Turner. Etc etc.

Now we are in danger of being the servants of a new kind of global machine, the connected computer, and art which is all about first principles, that connects people around that which we all own, or which no-one owns, couldn't be more vital.

Theatre which makes a virtue of simplicity is a great place to see this revolution, this fightback, in action.

Paul Corcoran