Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Sing it like you feel it

From severely restricted view seats, tonight I saw the much discussed London Road at the National Theatre. For those who haven't heard much about it - it's a musical created out of verbatim interviews and news reports about the lives and experience of the neighbours of Steve Wright, a serial killer convicted in Ipswich in 2006.

The piece was very clever, and in parts extremely moving, using the melodies of people's voices to musical compositions. Although it felt innovative, as I watched it I realised that many elements weren't new at all. First off, it wasn't the first verbatim musical I've ever seen. In 2006 I saw a cabaret musical at the Soho theatre called "I am Nobody's Lunch" by a New York based company. That particular musical consisted of songs made out of cold calls about terrorism that the company had recorded with Americans whose names they'd randomly chosen out of a phone book. In terms of creating compositions from the melody of speech, in the last few years I've been exposed to quite a few incredible artists that use real voices in conversation as fodder for music. John Moran has been analysing the musicality of speech for at least five years, and Charles Spearin made an excellent album called "The Happiness Project", which set music to his neighbours' voices in conversation, back in 2009. Greg McLaren is presently getting ready to take his solo show "Doris Day Can F*ck Off" to Edinburgh, and his show also covers this formal territory with his signature eclecticism. So it was strange to feel that it was formally inventive, because the form itself was not new for me. I think what made it feel fresh and unique was not just its form - it was a combination of its timeliness (in light of the recent phone hacking scandal a piece that criticised the media circus felt particularly relevant) and how thoroughly its form complimented content. In some cases form was content, which story-telling so rarely pulls off meaningfully.

The chorus of gossip, news reports, yelling, lamenting, the context that modern tragedies (especially when they involve anything that the news-reading-public might find of interest - see Serial Killer) and past that (especially evident from our restricted view seats) the experience of watching an audience watch this, watching them laugh at particularly off colour verbatim comments or jokes, watching them be moved to tears in some cases, seemed to add another pane of glass to the many windows of spectacle through which we were processing the reality of these murders. I feel like I'll need another couple of days to consider how ethical the whole thing was, and whether or not that's important.

Earlier today I was telling a friend about Ontroend Goed, the Belgian company whose work is often so interesting because it is unethical. Do ethics and theatre belong together? When writing fiction it seems to be standard to ignore the "angel of the house" as Virginia Woolf put it, the little voice of conscience that moralises our writing. And yet when working with real people's stories the angel must remain alive and well. How does one make daring work from reality without exploiting the subjects, or at least admitting the possibility of exploitation as a necessary sacrifice to the quality of the piece? Should the quality of a piece of art (a very subjective thing anyway) be prioritised over the well-being of its participants? Is that necessary to make something good? And how important is it that something is good, ultimately? More important than the human beings involved? Maybe? Does making something appallingly bad out of people's lived experiences in an attempt to remain ethical actually do the participants more of a disservice?

Big questions, I think, and perhaps with another day to think about it I'll decide that London Road was not exploitative at all. But it was definitely good. And I spent a lot of time wondering whether I should be enjoying it or not. A very complicated experience at the theatre - one that had me riveted as an artist and unsettled as a human being. And, more unsettling still, aware of that distinction.

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