Stop making sense

We search for meaning in the world. Why won’t theatre play ball?

We’re always trying to make sense of what we see. The lens of the eye presents images upside down, and the brain gradually adjusts the picture. We’re good at figuring things out.

So why does so much of theatre seem to like it when we can't? When Tom Stoppard was asked, shortly after the successful premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, what his play was about, he went with the only certain answer: "It's about to make me a lot of money."

To those of us with no percentage of the takings, the question can be mildly unnerving: “Well, it’s about the death of a salesman.” “It’s about two gentleman of Verona.” Or, if the title contains no clue, “It’s about the human condition.”(It’s always about the human condition.)

The question becomes harder when the work is abstract, conceptual, absurd, experimental or just plain difficult. Maybe you'll get by on, "It's about two tramps waiting for someone called Godot" and your thoughts about the condition of humanity, but to be drawn any further on a discussion of Waiting for Godot is to enter a quicksand of ambiguity.


Of course, Godot is about the omnipresent emptiness of existence in a world devoid of meaning propped up by sustaining routine. But what's the deal with the bit where they all swop hats? Confusion, as Brian Friel put it in Translations, may not be an ignoble condition, but it's usually a frustrating one.

One of the reasons Beckett’s work endures, like any good play, is that his puzzles contain enough clues to intrigue us without ever running the risk of being solved. The struggle is the meaning.

Too much difficulty, on the other hand, is alienating. riverrun (above), Olwen Fouéré's new performance piece for the Emergency Room, suggests a negotiable journey through James Joyce's famously inscrutable Finnegans Wake, by following the path of the river along streams of consciousness. But even Joycean scholars will admit that it frequently babbles.

“Every talk has his stay, vidnis Shavarsanjivana, and all-a-dreams perhapsing under lucksloop at last are through”. How much of that is wit, genius, verbal dysphasia, or just a slip of the typewriter?

I gave up trying to read the novel, and, sometime later, even abandoned the audiobook. But while I could rarely turn its images upright, I was never tempted to give up on Fouéré’s performance. You may not know what she’s on about, but Fouéré does. Even if the treasure can’t be found, there’s something pleasurable in the hunt.

When Beckett heard the first production of his radio play Embers (soon to be produced by Pan Pan), he wrote to a friend, "Good performance and production, but doesn't come off. My fault, text too difficult." Those words must come as both a relief and a challenge to its producers and its audience, safe in the knowledge that we will always want to break its codes.

Theatre doesn’t always make it easy, but that’s how we learn to see things differently.