What the media is slowly turning to, after front page outrage decrying thuggery, criminality and insanity, is the root cause of the recent riots in London. How is it, they ask, that a single incident can ignite such enormous social unrest? It’s perplexing, there’s no single answer, the debate is unending they say.
Difficult questions are abundant in theatre and one of the reasons I continue to return there because the answers are often provocative. There are times however, when the questions are not so compelling and the answers not so fruitful but from these too, there is something to learn.
Two shows I saw last week brought this to mind. But first, let me tell you about a time when I attended a court case in West Virginia. After everyone was ushered in and took their place, the murderer walked in. He walked past my friend’s family without a glance. They stood, as the rest of the court did, in total silence, as he went to take his place in the dock. I could only imagine what was going through their minds as the person who took the life of their child and brother, walked calmly past them…in physical reach.
As I watched Stephanie Jacob’s The Quick at Tristan Bates (until 8/13), a moral play on the forgiving possibilities of both criminal and victim, I was struck by the lack of theatrical truth in her premise; that it is possible to forgive. It is not that we can’t do that or that we do not have the capacity but that the kind of truth this play seeks is a banal, middle-class kind of infinite justice mechanism that is not theatrical truth. Simply, it is not interesting to present such a simple question and answer in theatre. So while the dramatic question may be somewhat compelling (will he forgive, will she change?) there are no lingering provocations once that question is answered. I mean, when I left the theatre the play did not carry on in my mind with new thoughts and questions springing forth.
A totally different play but worth discussing in the same vein is Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 8/20. While this is a comedy about two boyos who discover that they are part of a plot to have Hamlet killed in England, it contrasts with The Quick in that the premise (who were R & G, really) is answered in the first act. After that, if you don’t find sitcom style ooo-errr kind of comedy a bucket of laughs, you are waiting for the Dead part to come as swiftly as possible. It takes two hours. However, this R&G is a treatise, because the two minor characters in Hamlet are essentially you and I, in a funny way, as we too are minor and thus it is a note on our own mortality and purpose. So here we have a case of an interesting idea but very weak dramatic question.
In sum: The Quick had a strong dramatic question but weak theme while R&G had a weak dramatic question but interesting theme. Neither worked very well as a result. Both plays, though very favourably reviewed far and wide, are interesting lessons in theatrical integrity: that our questions should be both difficult to pose and the answers perplexing and provocative. High standards, yes, but the reason why I go. I don’t have the answers but I sure look to theatre for the questions.