Half of my more recent Feed involved sitting on my backside to indulge in a Charlie Brooker-fest by watching all three episodes of the latest Black Mirror series in one sitting. Bless you 4oD.
In defence of this apparent laziness on my part, the other half (or maybe seven eighths?) encompassed a journey of more than 300 miles up to Blackpool to see a play by a Cornish theatre company. To be fair I was travelling up for another event anyway, but the irony that the last play that Rogue Theatre had performed was 10 miles up the road in Tehidy Woods was not lost on me. Never let it be said I am not dedicated to an experiment…. My goal: to compare a good quality televised story with a decent theatrical production and to decide whether, as a one-time student of theatre, I still believe that live productions are worth the hassle in today’s technological world of on-demand entertainment.
The play I went to see was The Dancer and the Devil and it was the perfect way to end my weekend at the Showzam Festival of Circus, Magic and New Variety. The innards of the pretty Pavilion Theatre in the resort’s Winter Gardens may have been ripped out, leaving just the front of the proscenium arch and a stripped auditorium, but the guts were very much still intact in a lively and evocative production full of smoke-and-mirror illusory tricks, anarchy, darkness and light and, crucially, a series of enchanting and engrossing interlinking stories.
Good stories are the lifeblood of good television too, and dark themes are characteristic of Charlie Brooker’s work. White Bear, the second episode of the Black Mirror series, was by far and away the best of the three. The outlandish and downright weird nature of the story and the way it was easy to see how somewhere, in the not too distant future, this scenario could actually be reality, drew you in. Familiar locations were made strange and unfamiliar. This was television at its best – a story that messed with your head and with a fantastic reveal at the end – I shan’t spoil it for you.
The differences for me between the two experiences were manifold, but largely centered around the theatre being a more thorough and uninterrupted experience. No text messages, or kettle, or pile of ironing to provide a distraction.
We purchased a glass of wine at the bar; a glamorous sequined showgirl at the door took our tickets and we entered a beautifully crafted but eerie forest of books, the skeletons of trees, suitcases and abandoned black and white photographs. The stories of a hopeless troop of broken dolls provided weird and anarchic entertainment; harrowing tales told through the medium of cabaret, making them doubly disturbing and altogether more immediate – adding a ghoulish edge by mixing dance routines and game shows with knives and lives.
I must thank Rogue Theatre for their anarchic and wonderful mix of light and dark – and for reminding me that in a head-to-head between good theatre and good TV I would pick theatre every time. Why? Because when it’s done right it strikes a chord. We didn’t watch from a distance like the audience filming proceedings in White Bear, but were made to feel like illicit partners in the process, however helpless we might actually have been.
Theatre must fight really hard for even my attention these days. I believe it must be flamboyant and use all the tricks in the book rather than try to bashfully replicate a slice of life – because TV is a better medium for that. But oh, if theatre remembers to be what it should be, then it will always win my vote. Although perhaps I’ll let it do that a bit closer to home next time.