Art throughout history has been interpreted with a search for meaning, “aconscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code”1but on could say ingrained view simply a search for more when what we see onthe surface level is not enough and this subsequently takes away the sensoryexperience of said work of art, Susan Sontag’s point of good films freeing usfrom this relies on their sensory aspects, something one could argue theatrecan provide more of and has even more power to entirely free us frominterpretation. The main Greek theory of mimesis concerning art is stillpresent in the Western view today, the question of is the art a picture ofreality or a statement of the artist. Sontag believes this manifests itself inthe problematic defence of art which leads to form being separated from contentwith content being essential and form merely an accessory.2Sontag also makes the point that “the merit if these works certainly lieselsewhere than in their meanings” in reference to the films The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus3but one could argue this point is relevant to theatre wherein there is morethan just the performance text and its apparent meaning but also there is liveaction, a connection between actors and audience keying into the secondaryframework something which could be described as a phenomenological approach toviewing theatre rather than simply viewing the text meaning turning to whatexists between the performance and its spectators. While we cannot go back to viewing art without it needing to justifyitself there are certainly works of art which do have a quality to them whichleads them away from having to justify themselves and from constant interpretation,Sontag also holds this belief having written “Ideally it is possible to eludethe interpreters in another way by making works of art whose surface is sounified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct thatthe work can be just what it is.
” This ideal of eluding the interpreters, thespectators can arguably be backed up with a multitude of plays however aproduction I recently saw Let the RightOne In (December 2017) by The National Theatre of Scotland with Marla RubinProductions Ltd and Bill Kenwright in the Abbey Theatre yields a prime example.The highly choreographed piece rarely had just one thing happening on stagethere was a constant combination of movement, speaking, sound or light all ofwhich were polished and quick moving almost chaotic at times. This being thenature of the play barely left room for one to reflect on the why but ratherhad seemed to be aiming towards having the concentrations on just simply whatwas happening at that moment. The attendance on that night could be see turningtheir heads from place to place to catch glimpses of the different pieces ofthe total stage world such as Eli climbing a tree in the background or an actorwalking through the woods. There was something other than just the content ofthe piece much like Sontag referenced how cinema has camera movement, cuttingand composition4 Let the Right One In had a continuoussoundscape, complex and precise movements and a multitude of layers to what washappening on stage.
Real art is viewed as having the capacity to make theonlooker nervous5but this is often taken away when the piece is interpreted and boiled down tosimply what is the perceived meaning making the piece manageable and no longeras effective before. This translates particularly well to theatre for if wetake away the bodied experience to replace it with interpretation only thenwhat is left for drama is more than information it is composed of more visible,exposed components. Phenomenology, a central concept in the directness and interpretation oftheatre is written about by Bruce Wilshire as a “systematic attempt to unmaskthe obvious.”6 Hewrites as a follow up on Edmund Husserl’s first categorisation of phenomenologyas a method to reveal the meaning of things and events beyond just being awareof only what is needed for survival or short-term interest but rather to seetheir connections in the context within they are found. A method as such whenemployed sufficiently, flexibly and imaginatively can bring about the essentialcharacteristics of theatre art, the essence of theatre.
7Again Sontag’s point of good art always having a directness that stops the wantto interpret is applicable, while phenomenology is looking at the art to findmeaning it is not a reduction of the piece to just its meaning but actuallylooking at how this piece conveys any sense of meaning, emotion at what signcarriers bring to characters as a whole. Wilshire states that if theatre isinformative, it does not merely illustrate what we already know one could arguehow could a piece be informative if we do not interpret it but as Sontag pointsout art has much more to offer than its meaning alone8especially in theatre. If one is to look at a performance as informative itshould offer more than what we know as basics and make us aware the beyond muchlike Husserl’s methodology, if this is the case of an informative productionthen a recent one I have seen does not fit the criteria.
A new version of The Red Shoes written by Nancy Harris inthe Gate Theatre fell short of Sontag’s making of a production that eludes theinterpreters nor did it have the informative factor of illustrating more thanwhat we already know. As a member of the audience it seemed to me that manywere disengaged by what was happening on stage as time went on more talkingcould be heard and more people checking their phones as well as this theaudience participation felt and sounded less enthusiastic as the piece movedfrom a rapid, clean movement based interpretation piece into a slower storylinethat did not seem to offer any climactic moment for the audience. Withseemingly less heightened reactions, it also seemed that people were sittingback rather than constantly looking for what was unfolding. Another interpretation of phenomenology comes from Bert O States who sawits task as “to keep … the life in theatre.”9Fortier’s take on this is that phenomenology is “not concerned with the worldas it exists but how the world appears to the humans who encounter it”, how itis perceived, what is it like to be in.
This itself shows the differencebetween the pictorial arts and theatre which has a unique relationship with thepresentation of lived experience to the spectator which appears to the sensesas something seen, heard, even touched, tasted or smelled.10Such sensory affects are central to both phenomenology and theatre productionsin conveying their message, they also influence the ‘directness’ of art asspoken about by Sontag. The previously mentioned Let the Right One In heavily utilised sound to appeal to the audience’ssense, the soundscape was almost continuous throughout including before the playhad technically begun and during the interval. A noticeable point in thissoundscape was the eerie crescendo of what felt to be in-between music and purescreeching or static creating a build up to an intense scene that during, thelack of sheer volume of notice was then physically noticeable. The productionwhich had multiple elements of movement especially repeated movement among themysterious people in the woods behind all worked seamlessly with the soundbehind and almost gave a sense of awe but keeping its precise nature deterringinterpreters.
The Red Shoes productionspoken about above had a combination of both live music played on a pianolayered with music that appeared to be from a pre-recorded backing track andthe live singing voices of the performers. The combination was unified withrapid momentum as Sontag wrote about and so appealed to the senses and had thetraits to makes these musical scenes less desirable to dissect and interpret.The itch to interpret Sontag wrote about comes from experiencing what weare to take as reality when in fact what happens on stage in front of us is notreal but also ‘not not real’, the audience and actors key into the secondaryframework however this pausing to interpret creates a construction when onegroup namely the actors are in the secondary framework but the other namely thespectator has exited this framework.
A construction like so was existent intothe production of Let the Right One In asits continuous mode of performance contrasted with the audience’s moments ofprimary framework such as when they first entered the theatre and the play hadnot technically begun but even still there were actors moving across the stageand the voice over warning of emergency exits and other basic and essentialpieces of information were all said in the character of the town sheriff. This continuous mode seemed to make the audiencehyper alert after noticing what was happening around them all throughoutthereafter including the interval, something one could say put a damper on theitch to interpret as the mind was constantly preoccupied. The Red Shoes had clear and at times drastic switches from allmodes: representational, collaborative and self-expressive, all of which werealso present in Let the Right One Inbut executed in a less obvious way. A piece heavily influenced by dance11The Red Shoes of course had a focuson the self-expressive mode however the unification of the modes seemed jarringto the audience, noticeably the switches to collaborative which the audience onthe night I attended seemed almost put off by and were unexpecting of each timethey were called upon to take part, resulting in what sounded and felt like alacklustre participation. The loss of momentum in the world quality of thisplay took away from its directness and arguably invited interpretation and asearch for more meaning beyond what was presented. It is evident through bothrecent productions and multiple works on phenomenology in theatre that SusanSontag and her view of good films having a directness that sets us free of theitch to interpret is applicable to theatre as a work of art that moves beyondappealing to few senses but to almost all.