Why the Hell Can’t We Work Anything Out for Ourselves?

GOB SQUAD: WAR AND PEACE, ACCA, University of Sussex, Thursday 9th February, 7.30pm

Gob Squad (3 women and one man in this incarnation) dare you not to take them seriously, with their beige tights (lacy underpants proudly showing through) a memorable detail of imaginative sartorial ensembles suggestive of a kind of ironic take on late Nineteenth Century women’s wear via the Empire style of Revolutionary France, crazy shoes and all, very apropos for Tolstoy’s doorstop of a novel, an antiwar, anti-Napoleon, anti-superman, anti-literature-as-novelty platform from which we all embark on a mad military campaign crossed with a fashion parade about nothing so much as whether theatre is really no more than diversion, cat videos (included!) for the over-stimulated, that what looks at first like an examination of war is more an examination of why the hell can’t we work anything out for ourselves, and can we take anything about people dressing up and pretending to be other people seriously at all, given how nuts it was that Tolstoy thought he could write a novel that would comprehend such a war which, like all wars, beggars the imagination until Gob Squad happily intervenes and, miraculously, we are, if not squirming in toe-curling embarrassment, then paralysed with mirth and wondering, all through the show and almost continually since, how can this company create such an engaged, involved, switched-on, thoughtful response from their audience while being so hilariously funny? Someone behind me was actually helpless with laughter. I know exactly how they felt.

Oddly enough, I was at the launch this week of the programme for the Brighton Festival and Polly Toynbee, Festival Chair, in conversation via Skype with Kate Tempest, Guest Director, happened to mention in passing that some people may ‘feel that art isn’t for them’ or words to that effect, and for this glib aside was roundly ticked off by Kate Tempest who felt that for such people, not necessarily specified but we all knew who, it was more a question of economics, that with a little positive thinking everyone would embrace the empathetic, spirit affirming quality of the ‘arts’ and we just had to take it to the people and, ideally, make it cheap.

The subtext of this little contretemps, the bedrock of unstated assumption, was the question, is art concerned with thinking or feeling? If we can feel it do we still need to work it out? Should we even try? And if we can’t feel it, whose fault is that? (Ours, clearly.)

Gob Squad is in the work it out camp (to coin a phrase). All our happy, lazy assumptions are fair game. One of those assumptions, that art is about feeling, is roundly and mercilessly put to the sword. (They have one of those too, a sword that is, from the Napoleonic period we are assured. Can we believe them?)

To make art about feeling is to make those who don’t share those feelings feel left out (if you know what I mean). But to share the experience of working out what something means, how it affects us, how we should re-act to the ideas, that concept of performance is genuinely theatrical, a pure and authentic reason for an audience to come together with artists in a context of imaginative engagement.

So much of our Western, or maybe more specifically English language tradition, has become about revealing the inner life of characters, their feelings, their emotions. Art has become a fetish of individualised experience. As long as I feel it, it must be worthwhile, even valuable.

The great question of the moment is: how can we get new audiences to the theatre? How can we engage them when they do come so they come back? What will really make those who ‘feel art isn’t for them’ think that it is? The answers certainly don’t lie in ‘the same old, same old’. David Hare may lament the ‘European influence’ on the grand old English traditions, but those traditions are starting to look like a terrible problem.

Go into any art gallery and the name of the artist is written on the wall beside the art; into any bookshop and the name of the author is on any book. Our assumption of ‘what is art’ starts with an individual. If that individual is ‘a genius’ as evidenced by how much people will pay for their paintings for example, then the person who buys that painting must also be, in some way, also a genius, because why else would they have enough money to buy the painting? Is it any wonder that those who aren’t geniuses (so to speak), by dint of having paintings in galleries or lots of money to buy them, or just by having ‘feelings’, maybe don’t ‘feel art is for them’.

Tolstoy has written a ‘masterpiece’. That is agreed. Or is it? Gob Squad comprehensively take the whole enterprise to pieces, and I don’t mean in some remote, academic way, but truthfully, by taking the time to look at every aspect, and to find an original way of presenting what has become a kind of literary cliché. Near the beginning the audience is asked: who has read the book? There were very few hands. Then we were asked: who saw the recent television series? More hands. ‘That doesn’t count,’ we were told. And how true that is.

All frocked up and sumptuously photographed by the BBC, the actors head off to war, feeling, feeling, a smorgasbord of emotional intensity. Gob Squad, in contrast and collaboratively, look at everything with honesty and originality and, ultimately, asks the audience ‘what do you think?’ (literally for those three audience members who became part of the ensemble for the evening).

Gob Squad’s War and Peace wasn’t art as product, but as conversation, as interaction, as a collaborative working out of something important (what can be more urgent and terrifying than war?), first as a group of performers, but by the end of the evening, as people in a theatre, together.

The last time I had an experience in any way even approaching this was in Berlin (not by Gob Squad I hasten to add though GS is now based there having had its origins in Nottingham), a production (I use the term very loosely because the adaptation was very loose) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Schaubühne, a theatre on the Kurfüstendamm, (the only time I ever saw a play in Berlin) and there too the audience was totally involved, switched on and utterly engaged (and as with War and Peace, largely young) with the ensemble as they re-imagined and re-invented the text.

Gob Squad remind us that art is about something difficult, something challenging, and this is the way to new audiences and a new energy. This kind of uncompromising collaboration has to be the way forward.

Paul Corcoran