Review: Sometimes theatre makes me feel stupid

20 March 2016

by Joseph Winer

Sometimes I sit in complete darkness and watch a plot unravel in front of me on a topic I know nothing about. Then there’s an interval, and I’m suddenly thrown into the deep end of discussions about the vital political and social context of something I am none-the-wiser to. 

Luckily – as someone who has nearly mastered the skill of pretending to understand things I don’t – I nod my way through, and try to offer something to the table to throw my companions off the scent of my ignorance. I cunningly offer to buy them a drink first, hoping that this will disguise my false fa├žade as a common-knowledge intellect. Apparently wearing glasses and enunciating can give people the wrong impression.

During brief post-show discussions on Saturday evening, it became clear that Over There had different meanings for different people. Some understood exactly what was happening, others had an idea, and a few – like myself – simply found it impossible to link the historical context with what was being presented. Does this mean I didn’t enjoy it? No. Of course not. It’s theatre. It doesn’t need to be understood to be appreciated, or even valued.

Last year, the most confusing piece of theatre I experienced was Pomona, at London’s National Theatre. It made no sense. It was set in Manchester (a place I have never been to and know little about) and told two interlinking stories, simultaneously and out-of-order. It was a total matrix-mindfuck. From start to finish, I just didn’t have a clue. However, despite this, it made my top three shows in 2015. Why? Because it was slick, stylised and hardly gave me a chance to breath. There was no time to question the plot; you just had to ride along on the journey and trust that you’d still end up in one piece at the end of it.

Over There cleverly combines historical truth with a fictional story. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t fully understand the underpinning concept; I was still able to watch these characters and feel something. And surely that is the point of theatre? If someone wanted to educate an audience on the fall of the Berlin Wall, would a lecture have not done the trick? Or perhaps a PowerPoint presentation to make it a bit jazzier? Why go to the effort of making a show? Well, for one thing, people like me went to see it. Would I have gone to a lecture on the fall of the Berlin Wall? Highly unlikely. But a show…with characters, dialogue and feelings; now that’s more my cup of tea. And now I might just go ahead and do some research of my own. Clearly Mark Ravenhill felt that this was a topic worth writing about, and it has motivated me to go and do some digging – to educate myself. And who knows? Maybe, one day, I will be the worldly intellect that others perceive me to be. Perhaps I won’t need to get my peers intoxicated to have a discussion about the theatre. Maybe, one day, the tables will turn, and they’ll be buying drinks for me.

Now, of course, a play that I don’t understand needs to do a pretty good job of presenting itself to make me enjoy it. Over There did something to allow me to engage and, more importantly, connect with it. A consistent mirroring, seen not only within the blocking but also through the actors’ bodies, created an engaging physical pace. The delivery was timed to perfection and the performances were strong. When I saw my first proper Shakespeare production (The Taming of the Shrew with Samantha Spiro), I hardly had a clue as to what was happening. I found the language inaccessible and, despite my best efforts, failed to follow the plot. And it didn’t even matter. Spiro gave such a raw, emotive performance that I knew exactly what was going on as it was happening. I responded to the action and was able to feel something. Anyone who says that Shakespeare is inaccessible to those who don’t understand the language needs to question their own ability to feel. Feelings drive me through anything I can’t understand – in theatre and in life. We beam when happy, rant when angry, and if we just let a show take us on the ride, we don’t need to worry about the ins and outs of what’s happening, we just need to acknowledge how it makes us feel. And maybe spend a little time on some post-show research.

Let’s not worry when we don’t understand a piece of art. Let’s just enjoy it while it’s there; we can always spend some time later reading through the Wikipedia pages.  

Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca