(Just don't expect to experience it at the new RSC theatre)
New is an odd concept. The more I think about it, from a book to a pair of trousers to an idea, new is simply about ownership. I have this for the first time, therefore it is new, to me. When you move into theatre, the concept of new becomes slightly perverse. How exactly do you do a new version of Henry V, or Hobson’s Choice or The Seagull. The coveted descriptions; ‘world premier’, ‘new writing’, ‘recently discovered’ sell tickets and put bums on seats. We live in an era of fast over-consumerism and so the USP that we need in all our dealings is this one of ‘newness’, of ‘first-time-ness’, ergo, of ‘I am privileged’. The problem is, of course, that not a thing in theatre is ever truly ‘new’. Stories, words, paint-frames get used time and time again, albeit they might look different, but there are only so many versions of the same tale said in different ways with another shade of paint on the set. The way theatre and performance counteracts this stalemate is the key to its success, and that is its ‘live-ness’, its ‘happening-now-ness’. It may not be ‘new’ but it is ephemeral and that’s worth a bag of gold.
At a recent professional market-place for street arts (this is, as it sounds, when companies pitch their shows to potential bookers, backers and festivals) at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival, Chenine Bhathena (London 2012 Creative Programmer) delivered her speech outlining the ‘new’ ideas for cultural programming that 2012 was recognising and supporting. Among these were: multiculturalism, large-scale outdoor performance, and circus arts. For the people in the room, who have been making this kind of performance for years, it didn’t sound very new. But I suppose what Bhathena was talking about was a movement away from The Theatre, The Building, and back into the streets; creating a culture of pop-up performance, far away from (and one might say an advance on) the old bastions of theatre. You only have to stand on London’s South Bank where, in one direction you see the (reconstructed) Elizabethan Globe Playhouse, and the 1970’s monolith that is the National Theatre in the other direction, or stand at the doors of the Old Vic and look across the road to the Young Vic to realise this is a tried and tested method. When it comes to crunch time (be that a recession or an Olympic year, or both) then forget the baby, chuck it out with the bathwater. Hell, chuck the bath out while you’re at it.
But new buildings don’t mean new ways of thinking about art as proven by the dismal ‘new’ RSC theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, unveiled earlier this year. What the RSC had the opportunity to do was create an exciting, versatile performance space. Instead they’ve created a Front of House that misdirects you like every good shopping centre should, and they’ve built a playing space that recreates precisely The Swan, and the Other Place. It’s a great space, it’s just an unnecessary one. And it seems too that the golden boy of theatre, Rupert Goold has become stuck his ways, with his new production of Merchant of Venice speaking to every misogynistic, sexist, crass trope of performances at the RSC in the mid 90’s. Here then is the new kid on the block who needs to be ousted, for an even newer model.
So what would be new? Performance has been underground, it’s been underwater, it’s been all-night, it’s been still and static and immersive and terrifying. We don’t really want to get rid of the old, the stuff that works, the stuff that keeps performance ‘live’. But what we do need to do is create a new system of valuing performance, of paying for it, and of recognising it in terms of cultural significance. There’s no money to be made (or to be found) right now in the business of performance, but if we can lay-down some solid groundwork for culture, then this ‘new-ness’ might be a proper revolution.
At the end of her speech Bhathena, who is hugely positive about the possibilities for 2012 (but, like all the politicians of the Olympics, fails ever to mention 2013), was able to introduce the Artistic Directors for the Para-Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of GRAEAE (Britain’s most celebrated disabled theatre company), herself profoundly deaf, will take on the closing ceremony and direct the celebrations. Ten years ago this news would barely have elicited a reaction. Last week in a hall in Greenwich this announcement was met with a standing ovation, and a feeling that here was an opportunity to make something “new”, to put Great Britain on the cultural and sporting map for being the first Olympics to truly support, promote, engage with and recognise the achievements and talents of artists and sportspersons in the disabled community. For some it is too little too late, or feels like political spin and box-ticking. But I was in that room, and a revolution happened in the space of a minute. This is not about ‘new-ness’ so much as ‘live-ness’, and about taking the lessons of the past and putting them into practice. By being inclusive as opposed to exclusive, we have created a culture of performance that is constantly changing and reshaping, challenging and regenerating. As far as I’m concerned the mesmerising Danny Boyle (and it will be mesmerising) Opening Ceremony of the Olympics can take a hike, it’s old hat, it’s glorified fireworks – I’m looking to the future of performance and culture and identity- a future that will challenge as much as entertain, and it starts in September, at a very significant closing ceremony to mark the beginning of the next chapter. I’ll see you there.