On Thursday, March 22nd, I saw the Ottawa University Department of Theatre Drama Guild’s production of René-Daniel Dubois’s Don’t Blame the Bedouins, directed by Kevin Orr. Yes, the run is over (17th to 21st) and, yes, I should have written about it earlier but, fear not, this post isn’t as untimely as it may at first seem because this show will be a part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Plus, at the end of the day, the desire to shake an angry fist at corporate-executive-greed sometimes just can’t be resisted (what I’ve been occupying myself with the past couple of days). Also, I’m going to use my comments about this production of Bedouin as a point of departure into a discussion about the “nature” of theatre as a performing art — and that never gets old (really!). I look forward to your comments!
First, the production: there is a lot to commend and, I think, a really top-notch and entertaining show is very close to bursting out. There are interesting audio and visual elements, some interesting choreography, some fine chorus work, and some rough around the edges performances that will polish up nicely with a bit more work — in particular Martin Glassford. One standout performance which should be flagged now is William March, as Father Christmas, who proves that a fine performance and a commanding stage presence does not require a whole lot of words. It requires a moment-to-moment commitment to the role and that will always be a much tougher and important task than speaking a bunch of words. There is also an actor or two in the chorus who understand this, but I can’t possibly figure out who they are from the program. If you go to see the show, keep a look out for their eyes and the precision in their movement — then you will know who I am talking about.
Now having said all that, the show I saw was not wholly satisfying. Sure, this is in part because only so many edges can be rough before it becomes grating. Even so, the key and fundamental issue for me was the lack of clarity in diction on the part of so many of the principle actors. For much of the play, I simply could not make sense of the words — or even the phonemes — being spoken and I was in the second row. The actors weren’t talking in maths, buzzing like a fridge, or like a de-tuned radio. Instead, it was the aural equivalent of mixing all your poster paints together : a brown glop.
Now, I understand, this is very much a play about “failures of communication” but this is no excuse for actors to produce phonetic mud. Indeed, being articulate when the playwright intends a character to be articulate is even more important in this sort of play. Furthermore, some of the “accented” text that was displayed at one point was wholly intelligible in its written form. I have not seen the new translation but I suspect the quasi-gibberish that is in the script — had it been properly articulated — would have made good sense to the audience. Finally, even if the playwright / translator actually indicates in the script “actors improvise unintelligible gibberish”, the actors need to do this in a fashion such that the audience understands, aha, this is unintelligible gibberish that I am meant to hear. This entails speaking the comprehensible bits clearly and speaking the incomprehensible bits in a fashion which is clearly incomprehensible. Otherwise, the audience is simply left thinking they are missing something because the words aren’t making it past the front row. My guess is many of the actors should give up trying to speak in an accent and simply concentrate on enunciating the phonemes and the words. Doing a play without accents is forgivable, doing a play in which the words and phonemes are incomprehensible due to a failure in craft is not. Moreover, more likely than not, a functioning accent will eventually emerge if the actor focuses on the text that is given to them.
Which leads me to the thought I had about the nature of theatre while watching this performance. Hopefully, it will spark some dialogue. I want to claim that theatre is the performing art primarily concerned with the spoken and unspoken word.
First a few important caveats which are built into my definition but may not be obvious. Yes, of course, all the arts more or less exist on an “arts” spectrum or matrix and each art owes something to all the others. I agree. Totally. Moreover, this claim is not intended to backstop any kind of social and political claim. If someone wants to produce a jazz-opera-fashion show and call it theatre, go right ahead and please send me some comps.
Even so, I think my claim is useful for purposes of aesthetic assessment. For example, this production of Don’t Blame The Bedouins is close to being an engaging and successful piece of theatre. Moreover, it will only become an effective piece of theatre if the production team refine those aspects of the production that deal with the spoken and unspoken word. They can refine the choreography to near perfection but this will not improve the production as a piece of theatre. Similarly, a piece of contemporary dance will not be improved as a piece of dance if the dancers refine their soliloquies.
So what do people think, is this a useful claim about the nature and assessment of theatre?
And, for the record, I don’t think you will go wrong by going to Bedouins. If they don’t refine the production, there are enough interesting elements that it won’t be an unpleasant experience. Moreover, if the production improves, as I suggest here, it may be very good.
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