Lifting the Lid on Theatre
Marilyn Mason is impressed by the London International Festival of Theatre
I admit to being a theatrephobe I've endured too many hours in stuffy auditoriums watching overacted selfindulgent trivia, with the added insult of being expected to applaud at the end, even, all too frequently, to join in a standing ovation.Why are we applauding? Relief that it's over and we can stretch our knees at last, which would account for the standing ovations? Because the scenery and special effects are more interesting than the plots though rarely as good as those in even the most mediocre film? Because we saw a naked celebrity or caught a soap star forgetting his lines? Or is it just habit and a kind of embarrassment going to the theatre is a 'good night out', expensive enough to be a treat (and how expensive!), and long enough (oh, how long!) to make one feel slightly foolish if it turns out, as it often does, to have been a waste of time.
Much of what passes for theatre isn't really theatre at all. Monologue, except under very special circumstance (see below) is not good theatre. Anything that you could just as well and more comfortably experience by reading to yourself at home is not theatre at all. Anything that television or film can do as well or better may be theatre, but is not worth doing in the theatre. That's just about everything in the West End and most of the staples of repertory theatre demolished. QED: theatre is dead.
Well maybe not quite dead. There are some corners of alternative and foreign fields where interesting things happen once in a while, and there are theatres and organisations enterprising enough to bring them to us occasionally, at least in London. The London International Festival of Theatre is one such, founded in 1981 by directors Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal as a biennial monthlong summer festival introducing exciting international theatre to London audiences. But it was a bit intense I can't have been alone in feeling that so much good theatre crammed into such a short space of time was a bit like being asked to eat several superb dinners one after the other and in its twentieth year LIFT began a different, and perhaps more accessible, regime, spreading their imports and creating a continuous year-long 'festival'. That gives audiences more time to find out about productions, to organise themselves to see them, and to digest and appreciate theatrical experiences.
And what experiences they are. LIFT claims to have "brought a sense of fun and a wealth of unexpected and exhilarating experiences and insights to Londoners a rich encounter between artist and public, ideas, experiences and conversations theatrical experiment, a laboratory in which accepted notions are challenged, new ideas played with."
They do not exaggerate. Liberated from the curse of wordiness by the lack of a common language, LIFT productions tend towards the physical and visual, though don't be put off by this; Marcel Marceautype mime is rarely on the menu.
Nor are many of the productions 'well made' plays: they may not have plots or characters, scenes or acts, and they are as likely to happen above the heads of the audience in a disused warehouse or in a London park as in a theatre. They sometimes involve fire or fireworks.
A LIFT project just beginning is Trespass, aimed at using London's green spaces to explore creativity and our relationship with nature in, so far, unspecified ways typical of LIFT in its experimental remit, though the end-products are more likely to be original and surprising than typical.
Perhaps there is no "typical" LIFT product. My favourites from previous seasons are fairly heterogeneous: Bobby Baker recreating her life story in a North London church with the contents of her food cupboard (a monologue, yes, but one utterly dependent on being there to share the comedy and pathos, to witness her disintegrating life represented in a mess of foodstuffs and cardboard and genuinely theatrical); a Thames boat trip accompanied by a poetic commentary about the river, but organised like a parodic plane journey, complete with spookily smiling stewardess, and insistently complimentary sweets, drinks and blankets; the stunning Argentinean De La Guarda, performing somewhere thrilling and indescribable between circus, dance and theatre; an amazing and dangerous display of flame-throwing in Battersea Park; Eugene Onegin in Russian, so limpidly produced and acted that the surtitles seemed superfluous.
LIFT reminds us that theatre is sometimes wonderful, a real experience that can give one goose bumps, unique and impossible to reproduce in any other medium. If only it were always like that.
See www.liftfest.org or phone 020 7490 3964 for further information about LIFT