More dead than alive
If this has been so far a singularly fine season—containing, among other pleasures too numerous to mention. Nicol William- son's Hamlet at the Roundhouse, a new style emerging with spectacular elegance and assurance at Stratford and, at the Ald- wych, a World Theatre season which has amassed more riches than were perhaps ever offered on one stage in so short a space before--then by no means the least remark- able aspect of the past few months has been the comparative quiescence of the commer- cial West End. I cannot remember a time when there were fewer openings, and those few (with two brilliant exceptions) so com- pletely negligible.
Such a state of affairs may seem distress- ing, and to draw comfort from it positively heartless. But it may equally well be seen as the obverse. indeed the inevitable corol- lary, of so much flourishing activity else- where; for years the cry has been that the commercial theatre must either die or change: and, since the first seems, if only on the evidence of history, inherently un- likely, it is at least possible that the present apparent loss of confidence on the part of certain West End managements indicates simply the trepidation and misgiving which invariably accompany change. Either way we are freed for the moment from a kind of theatre which—leaning heavily on the glories of its past and tending, as these become harder to recapture. to draw instead on nostalgia. self-deception, complacency and a stultifying insularity—has seemed at times perilously close.
It must have been some such grim reflec- tions which led to the formation of the Living Theatre in America: and last week, which brought Mr Daubeny's World Theatre season to a close, also saw the arrival for the first time in London of that legendary company. Created by Julian Beck and his wife, Judith Malina. the Living Theatre is among the oldest, and certainly the most august. of the many experimental groups which have sprung up in the us beyond Broadway's arid wastes. Pacifist, anarchist and chronically hard up. this band of stroll- ing players has been 'exiled' for some years now on the continent. living from hand to mouth and sharing equally whatever meagre income might accrue. If their lives are so to speak collective, so for the most part are their works; and in so far as these reject conventional forms--abjuring even words in favour of grunts. shrieks, howls and physical imagery, often of the utmost violence—they are the logical reflection of the Becks" abhorrence of conventional society.
Their fairly dim view of humanity in general is evident from the company's 'col- lective creation', Frankenstein. which opened their season at the Roundhouse: a piece which begins with death on the rack, in gas chamber or electric chair, by hanging, beheading. garotting. crucifixion, guillotine and firing squad, and ends with the whole company imprisoned, running mad in grey denims and finally consumed by fire. The piece tirelessly rams home what seems a somewhat glib, not to say perfunctory message and its methods, being exhaustive rather than selective, swiftly induce a state
of inertia bordering on trance. 'Reality at white heat is holiness', says a note in the programme, and certainly this kind of lethargy has religious or at least churchy associations. It returns in their second pro-
duction, Mysteries, when Mr Beck intones a number of crude but ambitious slogans (`Change the world', 'Stop the wars', 'Free
England') to liturgical responses from his company scattered among the audience. The combination of our leader's austere presence, his straggly white locks, gaunt face, harsh, droning voice, the extreme solemnity of his manner and the equal inanity of his statements has, like the rest of this drab evening, an uncommonly lowering effect.
This section is followed by another in which a number of men laboriously ex- tract and deposit surprisingly copious quantities of spittle, phlegm and sputum in wads of absorbent pink lavatory paper provided for the purpose. Again, the precise object of the exercise is conveniently ambiguous: it may be taken as a disgusted comment on the iniquities of society, alter- natively as an expression of the company's own boredom, their sense of futility and contempt for an audience whose reactions varying from respectful silence to a kind of nervous glee—were not noticeably different from the obsequious docility commonly found among audiences for the dreariest sort of West End musical. Indeed, given the
opposite content of the two occasions, the manner, and presumably the underlying purpose, are in each case remarkably
similar: a form of tacit mutual flattery con- veyed through the exchange of trite formulae which, though comfortably pre dictable, have long since lost whatever meaning they may once have possessed.
But this impression of triviality and emotional shallowness is perhaps inevitable.
Companies who rely for material on their own resources seldom have much success in this line; indeed one might argue that the verbal banality of the Living Theatre both illustrates and justifies their rejection of dialogue as a means of communication.
What is rather more disconcerting, in a com- pany so strenuously and sternly dedicated to their work, is the general flaccidity, the
lack of concentration and the imaginati'e poverty revealed in Frankenstein. Ad- mittedly, the company has a flair—in the
nailing of a coffin lid on a living corpse, a magic lantern sequence when Dr Franken- stein extracts the heart of his victim. a slow motion descent of drowning sailors from ship to seabed—for simple but effec- tive grand guignol. But beyond this their talents seem to consist solely in a certain gymnastic agility, and in a lack of inhibition which, though it enables them to scream. belch, froth at the mouth, stomp and shriek at will, is exploited with small ingenuity for uniformly primitive ends. The mime of madness in the prison cells, for instance, or the acting out of classical myths is sadly ill-organised and amateur.
Not that it is entirely fair to judge this company by what one may call normal
standards. Their chosen task, whether in life or art, could after all scarcely be more
daunting. And, if they seem physically clumsy and visually boring, it is no doubt in part because what were once revolutionary techniques have long since been borrowed , and assimilated elsewhere in rather more sophisticated forms. Nevertheless, to accept this rambling, repetitive and self-indulgent production as a substitute for genuine ex- periment is both absurd and dangerous. Absurd because, as anyone accustomed to the precision required of, say, the Royal shakespeare Company will know, radical innovation demands an emotional and imaginative effort entirely foreign to these actors. And dangerous because, in setting their face against the stilted phrase, the hackneyed gesture, the meaningless or dis- honest accretions of tradition, the Living Theatre has replaced one set of clichés with another—and this in an area which, precisely because it is superficially so free, k peculiarly open to the slick answer and the soft option.
Meanwhile the World Theatre season went out rather less brilliantly than it came in with a production from Rome of Giovanni Verga's La Lupa: a late nine- teenth century melodrama which, in Franco Zeffirelli's production, retained small trace of the limpid delicacy and tact of the cele- brated short story on which the play was based. Given the somewhat cumbersome machinery of the text, Signor Zeflirelli might perhaps have opted for the kind of exquisite pastiche of the conventions of the period seen two years ago in the Abbey Fheatre's The Sha►►ghraun. Instead of which v,e have a fairly straightforward underscor- ing of what is already a somewhat crude plot; Anna Magnani, playing under her breath and uncomfortably close to camera, conveys a sombre and melancholy vision of la Lupa's thwarted passion; and there is a captivating performance by Manuela Andrei as her woefully maltreated daughter.