Reviewing the upholstery

Written for The Collective Review, 11 September 2009

I spent a pleasant hour on Wednesday experiencing Theatretank’s ÁTMAN, which involved wandering the residential streets and footpaths of south Wimbledon while listening to an abridged audio version of Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation.

Theatretank’s mp3 player setup was one of the better ones I’ve come across when investigating audio-assisted productions. The player was small and simple to use and, even better, came with a lanyard, so I could hang it around my neck instead of cramming it into one of my already overloaded pockets like I had to for Rotozaza’s Wondermart; but the headphones themselves, though they were great at blocking out ambient noise, kept working their way free of my lugholes.

I spent a good long while during and following the performance trying to decide whether to mention the wayward earbuds in my review. I kept coming back to this question: would reviewing the apparatus as well as the content be equivalent, in straight theatre terms, to reviewing the theatre upholstery as well as the onstage action?

I don’t have a concrete answer. And there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with reviewing the upholstery; if your seat is uncomfortable it impacts upon your experience of the play. The West End Whingers often take leg room, sight lines and bar tariffs into account in their reviews, rating their entire night out, not just what they see on stage.

What does excite me – as a combined theatre geek, language geek and futurism geek – is the effect audio-assisted productions are having on one small corner of the critical landscape. The language of criticism as it stands is inadequate to describe performances like GuruGuru or Rotating in a Room of Images, so every article or review written about such productions must experiment and re-evaluate until a new vocabulary is formed.

The term ‘production’ gains precedence over ‘play’, because ‘play’ implies an audience and performers, and many audio-assisted productions have neither; which in turn necessitates the use of a term like ‘participants’ for those involved. There are ‘audio-instructed’ productions like GuruGuru and ‘audio-assisted’ productions like ÁTMAN and David Leddy’s Susurrus.

As the landscape evolves, language evolves so we can continue to describe it. You don’t have to be a language geek like me to appreciate the symmetry.


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