I have decided that art is scary. Gone are the days when an abstract painting would cause a stir, now you need to create something far more shocking in order to be noticed. Does something really have to be repellant or disturbing to impress the audiences of today? I am beginning to think it does. As a society we seem obsessed with extremism and cynicism in art, subtlety is long gone. Artists and actors and others in the creative world seem intent on pushing themselves to the edge physically and emotionally, often with dangerous consequences. This is exhausting and harrowing for both the performer/artist and the audience/observer. This realisation of mine has been brewing slowly but surely; it began when I experienced the work of Stuart Brisley. He is widely regarded as a seminal figure of British performance art. The videos of his performances show the extent to which he is willing to go to make his point. I found Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) which was on display at Zoo Art Fair this year, particularly disturbing. In this video Brisley deliberately makes himself vomit continuously to represent an analogous representation of the objection to genocide. I found this literally unbearable to watch, and difficult to comprehend.The same can be found in music too - often music that is discordant and unpleasant to the ear is considered to be the most promising 'new music'.
I went to see the critically acclaimed ‘Earthquakes in London’ at the National Theatre last Friday. It is being performed on the Cottesloe stage, the only one of the three National’s theatres that I haven’t been to before. It is a three hour long play and we had standing tickets; I was a little worried about tiredness setting in after a long week at work. Turns out I didn’t need to be worried, the play captivated me from start to finish.
‘Earthquakes in London’ was commissioned by Headlong in 2008 under the artistic directorship of Rupert Goold. Headlong collaborates with adventurous theatre artists, and supports and helps them to bring their most challenging and provocative work to the stage. ‘Earthquakes in London’ is a new play by Mike Bartlett, a promising young playwright, who is only 29 years old. This epic play about climate change and corporate corruption is very impressive for such a young writer.
The staging was quite unique, a shoebox-like stage at either end of the auditorium, and then an elevated path through the centre of the theatre, which most of the audience stood surrounding. Often during the performance the actors leapt from the stage into the standing audience to continue the action amongst us. I was amazed by the energy from all the cast, which incidentally was very large. They really threw themselves into the drama, which is why the disturbing message was so forcefully conveyed.
The play spans from 1968 to 2525 and appropriately begins with the famous song about that year. The first half was slick and exciting, there was so much going on it was difficult to know where to look. Interestingly it tackles domestic issues as well as more serious environmental themes. The sinister twist to the story only became evident towards the end of the first half when an estranged father suggests his daughter should terminate her pregnancy. His research leads to his doomed, and completely extreme opinions, scary but eye-opening for the audience, since they are based on real scientific evidence. It is difficult to pick out any of the actors for a special mention, they were all brilliant. The second half was not quite as convincing and unfortunately fell into ridiculous ‘futuristic whimsy’, to quote Guardian critic Michael Billington. I felt the last twenty minutes was completely unnecessary and detracted from the overall poignancy of the piece.
I enjoy being challenged by art, and this was a refreshing play for The National. But being someone that gets very affected by things, I would like occasionally to see a new piece of theatre, or performance art that aims to provoke positive thoughts. People can be precious about new art; I believe theatre can be groundbreaking and thought-provoking without being completely depressing and soul-destroying. I left The National in floods of tears but would urge you to try and see the play... if you are thick-skinned.
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