There's a tradition in aesthetics that stretches back at least to Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), or even further back to David Hume's 'Of the Standard of Taste' (1757) which says that basically we should agree in our judgments of what is good or bad and that when people disagree it is because one person isn't judging properly. Hume has a pragmatic series of qualities that characterise the 'ideal judge', some of which are matters of character and some of experience. Kant's more sophisticated argument suggests that aesthetic judgment involves using some of our fundamental mental capacities in a distinctive way that suspends our particular experiences of the world; in a sense, when we make aesthetic judgments we are more in contact with our humanity than in ordinary judgments and perceptions. Obviously there are problems with these approaches: this state of rarefied high-minded perfection is probably impossible to achieve under Hume's definition and in Kant's it's not clear that we should respond aesthetically to art: after all, art is partly about beauty, but sometimes it's about political ideas, or ugliness, or conceptual thought - to respond only to the formal elegance of Accidental Death of an Anarchist or Guernica or One and Three Chairs would be to respond not to art but a slender aspect of that art.
That said, I am in unfashionable sympathy with this approach. The tradition of de gustibus not disputandum est, that you can't argue over matters of taste, seems to me disproved every day: we often disagree about our artistic judgments and we often argue, try to persuade each one other of the rightness of our perspective. I can think of conversations where I've managed to see an artwork from someone else's point of view which has enabled me to 'get it'. If it were true that aesthetic judgments were wholly subjective, we would no more argue over them than we'd argue over whether I had a headache. Art, in other words, is not Marmite. If I'm honest, when I find myself wildly disagreeing with someone about an artwork, I do think that often they are wrongly using a non-aesthetic judgment - prejudice, attitude, posturing, crude political disapproval, crude political approval, sheer peevishness and perversity - where they should be using an aesthetic one (and also, being reasonably self-critical, I try to wonder if I am). It's true that art is not purely aesthetic; political and moral categories are wholly relevant to art. But they do not, in my view, replace aesthetic judgement; I'm not convinced by the Terry Eagleton argument in Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) that, to put it crudely, scratch an aesthetic judgments and you'll find a political one underneath. They seem to be in my experience clear and distinct ideas. I can think of countless occasions where a political judgment is used to trump an artistic one; in fact, I have an academic friend who I think uses political judgments as a kind of prophylactic against the difficulty of becoming absorbed in the messy endlessness of aesthetic experience - rather than let himself go into the hall of mirrors of a truly complex play or film or novel or poem, he reaches, more often than not, for a political judgement and, with an almost audible sigh of relief, he can safely set it aside and not have to deal with the artiness of it.
Indeed, one of the things that irritates me most in responses to theatre is the foreclosing of a play around meaning. I've been wondering why. After all, what does it mean? isn't a stupid question. It's an entirely pertinent question to ask of some of the finest plays I've ever seen: if you watch Far Away by Caryl Churchill and you don't ask what it means, I kind of wonder what play you're seeing. But it seems to me another way of taking a short-cut to avoid the aesthetic. It's the aesthetic that almost always complicates, often productively, the meanings of a piece of theatre and by jumping to a meaning without paying thorough, fine-grained attention to how those meanings have been enriched and multiplied and complicated by the aesthetic, even to the point of obliteration (e.g. Dada, Citizen Kane, Attempts on Her Life), we're doing it wrong.
What the aesthetic does is often make things more ambiguous, uncertain, and difficult. Very occasionally the aesthetic simply muddies what should be clear water. I'm not inclined to stay with the feelgood arrangement of Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' for instance. You need to pick your meanings. But most of the time, I want to stay with the ambiguities that art gives us. Twenty years ago, I went with a friend to see Churchill's The Skriker. By any definition, this was a complicated piece. Afterwards, my friend kept saying 'what do you think it was about?' and I kept trying not to answer. I didn't want to be swept up in the stampede towards meaning. I like not knowing; rather, I like the special kind of not knowing that theatre (that art) makes possible.
These meandering thoughts are prompted by the premiere of Alecky Blythe's Little Revolution at the Almeida. Blythe is known for her verbatim work, but in particular her form of verbatim where the actors are recreating, down to every last hesitation, grammatical fuck-up, personal tic, semantic confusion, the words of an interviewee whose recorded words are being played to them through an earphone. For this play, Blythe is returning to Hackney, the site and subject of her breakthrough show, Come Out, Eli (2003); the occasion for this visit was the wave of rioting that broke out across Britain in the summer of 2011. As the riots spread through East London, Blythe went out with her MP3 recorder and tried to interview residents and rioters, criminals and community leaders. From this she has assembled a kind of narrative about the riots but also about the making of a verbatim show about the riots.
Like almost any good bit of theatre, it has divided the critics. And this isn't just a newspapers-versus-the-bloggers thing. It's got lots of people really worked up. Some of the newspapers loved it; some hated it. Some bloggers loved it; some hated it. People I like and respect admired it and some people I don't like and don't respect admired it too. So it's all very confusing.
But there seems to be a broad pattern here. So, Susannah Clapp in the Observer says,
You don't see the riots. Nor is there a concerted attempt to account for what caused them [...] You – at any rate I – realise for the first time just how stylised "realistic" stage dialogue is, how effectively a confident delivery can disguise incoherence, how a rich vocabulary can triumph over broken syntax
So she accepts that the show isn't trying to represent the riots as such but she's learned something about the nature of theatrical representation and she gives the show four stars. On the other hand, Aleks Sierz in The Arts Desk, tells us
Little Revolution tells us nothing we didn’t know about the 2011 riots; it comes late after the event; it says more about the difficulties of recording people in stressful situations than about the events themselves; it seems to have no politics
He wants a show about the riots themselves and he pans it. Megan Vaughan, who is a marvellous blogger (and, incidentally, a bit of a Kantian), tells us 'Tonight’s show was Little Revolution by Alecky Blythe, and it was about the riots in London in 2011' [my emphasis] and, on this basis, finds it wanting:
that realism [...] never appears. There’s no threat here. There’s no fear or tension. We hear from comedy do-gooders and opinionated bystanders, but never the kids. People throwing tea parties, never throwing bricks. It’s not real (we’re in a theatre in Islington ffs), it’s not realism, it’s not even naturalism because the source material sounds like soap in the actors’ mouths. It’s just realness. Tedious, massaged realness. Rehearsed, yet also somehow a bit stunted, awkward.
In other words, the aesthetic means are a distraction from the realism that would punch through all that, take us beyond the middle class theatre makers, the Islington theatre, the rehearsed actors, and directly show us the riots, the bricks, the kids.
I'm simplifying these comments and there's more subtlety in what each person is saying, but I wonder if Little Revolution is a show where, if you think it's about the riots, you won't like it; and if you think it's about how theatre can represent the riots, you'll love it.
And I loved it. I'm not in love with it - I did think there were some longueurs - but it's pretty loveable, as long as you stay with the ambiguities. I wanted to talk about what happens when you stay with the ambiguity of Little Revolution.
Alecky Blythe plays herself throughout the show. Let's think about that for a moment. Alecky Blythe plays herself. But it's not like David Hare performing his monologue Via Dolorosa; it's not there to add authenticity, testimony, personal conviction. Somehow it's the opposite; it shows the inadequacy of the method, lays bare the awful presumption, the haphazard encounters, the class bias that leads her to focus on a community tea party sponsored by M&S and, apparently, to see it as a major positive rather than an ineffectual distraction. She seems driven to create an everyman hero out of Siva, the owner of a destroyed corner shop, in a way that seems a an individualistic cliché about redemption and the common man. But the thing is, she can have her M&S cake and eat it, because the theatricality allows her to be double; as I said, Alecky Blythe plays herself. There are two Alecky Blythes on that stage; one who conducted these interviews, the other who is pitilessly observing her own failures. It's ferociously honest and, in that sense, realistic: in part because it gives us a sense of what it is like being caught up in a confusing and sprawling ongoing mess like a riot but also because it gives us access of a fairly direct kind to the decisions being made to make the show - in a way that you didn't with, say, Gillian Slovo's The Riots (2012) - but at the same time the theatrical framing of it draws intense attention to and encourages us to laugh critically with and at those choices.
It reminds me of Nick Broomfield's documentary style; like Louis Theroux for grown-ups, Broomfield, in extraordinary work like Chicken Ranch (1983), Driving Me Crazy (1988), The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife (1991), Aileen Wuornos (1992), Heidi Fleiss (1995), increasingly intervened in his documentaries, sometimes playing the idiot, sometimes challenging his subjects, in a way that refused to treat the camera and the documentary maker as anything other than a material reality present in the room, affecting the documented reality the way observing the path of an electron changes the path of an electron. But while Broomfield regularly throws his interviewees off the game, Blythe herself is the one wrong-footed and the piece has an undertow of pathos, comic pathos to be sure, but pathos all the same. In fact she's surrounded by journalists and documentary-makers, some of whom are condemn themselves out of other people's mouths, but some of whom are clearly much more professional and experienced than Blythe. Much of the humour of the piece, and it is very funny, derives from Blythe's Monsieur-Hulot-like ineptness, always several steps behind the action.
Because, I don't know what you think, but the Recorded Delivery technique, where actors reproduce exactly the intonations of the original speaker, has very contradictory effects on me. On the one hand I have that startled intense response of hearing how people actually speak placed on a stage, which jolts you into realising how artificial realistic speech usually is (which is Susannah Clapp's point, above), and does immerse you somehow in a particular, ungeneralised situation; but it also, to be very frank, makes me laugh at how idiotic people often sound when you hear genuine ordinary speech reproduced on stage. I'd love to say that I think Blythe's techniques confers an enormous dignity to the people she represents, but I can't wholeheartedly say it does. Taken as a whole, the overall gesture of the performance suggests a care and attention, a respectful desire for fidelity, but at individual moments, everyone (including, of course, Blythe herself) often we might find ourselves laughing at the characters. We are doubled too: we're in the show and we're outside it, internal and external to the show.
And class is at work; of course it is. Not as an unreflective assertion of the authenticity of the marginalised and socially excluded and disaffected, but in the uncomprehending three miles between Almeida Street and Clarence Road. Alecky Blythe both puts herself forward to be ridiculed and also marks the space of the middle-class theatregoer in the show; Almeida has been, without doubt, the theatre with the most well-heeled audience in London. Imagine that theatre trying naively to represent reality; when we experience Alecky Blythe's limitations, we're also experiencing our own. To sit there wanting to see the reality of the riots and being frustrated that we can't is, weirdly, to replicate exactly what Alecky Blythe is doing right through the show. Alecky Blythe's performance/behaviour - because which is it? - sometimes seems intentionally playing dumb (maybe to get people's trust), sometimes she seems inarticulate out of genuine fear, and sometimes she's stumbles, as would surely most of us, against the limits of her understanding and imagination, and she shares that with us. In Joe Hill-Gibbins's production (and Ian NcNeil's design), the Almeida itself has been broken up, remade; a kind of dérive overlays a different topography on a theatre I've probably sat in 50 times, always in the same configuration; we entered the theatre through a new entrance, the famous balcony, back wall and columns have been decent red, obscured, the theatre looks damaged or incomplete; it is difficult to know who was audience and who was cast; it's actually hard to tell what is the theatre and what is the set. And, on that, we sense an uneasy division in the cast between the actors (Equity minimum, at least) and the 'community chorus' of 30+ volunteers (presumably not paid). Personally, I don't think that's a disastrous political problem; no one's forced to be in the community chorus and it may well be genuinely a valuable, invigorating experience being involved in a production like this - but it sure does add to the sense of division in the theatre, the sense of our middle-class omniscience as a theatre audience, demanding to be shown the reality of the underclass, is disrupted, broken, inadequate.
I think it's wonderful, not because it lets us know the true story of The Riots, but because it invites us to reflect on what that could possibly mean, and I love it because it stays with all the ambiguities to which this question gives rise. It's a very funny, deeply uncomfortable bit of theatre.
UPDATE: Read Matt Trueman's piece. He says it all so well.