No outside. Nowhere. Theatre critics’ struggle for criteria, distance. And, of course, money.

by Florian Malzacher

In: 25. Ed. Marie Nerland. Bergen: BIT Teatergarasjen, 2010.

Finally, criticism only exists in relation to something other than itself: it is an instrument, a means to a future, or to a truth, which it neither knows nor will become, it is a glimpse of an area that it would like to police, but can’t enforce its law.Michel Foucault

A black chambermaid in the large, marble, box-like set mops the floor, mops and mops, her movement becoming slower, becoming slow motion. Then, after a blackout with loud booming white noise: absolute silence. As if all sound were turned off. And in the silence, in the harsh, bare marble room sits a baby alone, only a few months old, sits and looks incredulous. Hesitatingly, without lifting its gaze from the audience, it reaches out for a black cup, knocks it over, and three dice roll over the white floor. A surreal dream, a film scene perhaps, but with an electric physical presence. And the audience barely dares to breathe, so as not to disturb the child, so as not to disturb the image. So as not to be saddled with the responsibility.

How does one capture presence with language? With what criteria does one judge the performance of a baby? Are they allowed to do that? What ethical principles are valid for art? What is one describing when there is no plot, no acting, and no dialogue to describe? How true is memory?

The job of the critic isn’t exactly made easier by the fact that theatre is increasingly unwilling to take a text and more or less cautiously or violently heave it onto a stage, interpret it, illustrate it, or embody it. Criteria for good or bad have always been a construction in art and life, a difficult-to-separate mix of relative agreement about the latest discourse and one’s own private opinion. However, as long as it is clear that it is about more or less successfully staging a drama, as long as the text always comes first and everything else follows it, as long as the actor (regardless of whether psychological or artificial, whether very physical or very ethereal, whether over-aestheticised or humble) plays a reasonably clear and defined role, as long as the actor plays a role at all, then you at least have something to hold onto while writing the review. And if you nevertheless are still clueless, you can always praise or complain about the diction of the main actor.

Text, movement, space, sound, lighting, whatever

Those were the days. Nowadays you can be happy when an actor is involved at all, and if the critic has to evaluate or at least describe the performative ability (and ‘presence’) of completely paralysed people with motor neuron disease (in a work of the German theatre- and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief at the Volksbühne, Berlin) or of computer-playing youths, old ladies, unemployed air traffic controllers and Indian call centre workers (all in the work of Rimini Protokoll), of eagerly performing professional dilettantes (e.g. Baktruppen or their successors Showcase Beat le Mot), or even – as in the above described opening scene of the fourth part of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogondia – of a nine-month-old child.

The critical reflection about the actor’s work and his role is one of the most obvious aesthetic indications of contemporary ‘experimental’ theatre. Among other reasons it results from a mistrust of traditional acting skills with their often predictable tricks, but its roots are deeper; the ‘as if’ of the conventional theatrical pact is not, for many theatre-makers, a feasible starting point anymore. The critique of representation, above all the psychoanalytically influenced French post-structuralism and its variants, has necessarily also called into question the theatrical machinery of representation. Such theatre often does not want to show any other kind of reality, but rather create a situation that is in itself real. In this way, the borders between acting and performance, representation and presentation dissolve, as do many of the customary criteria for analysis and assessment. Where the text does not necessarily have the first word, any system of signs can come to the fore in order to demand attention and be the starting point also of a critique. Movement, space, sound, light, whatever. Perhaps even presence.