On 5 March 2017, Lucy Pitman-Wallace, co-founder and director of Three-Legged Theatre Company and former associate director at the RSC, held a masterclass for the MA Theatre Lab on Antonin Artaud and putting into practice his theories on The Theatre of Cruelty.
Antonin Artaud saw both the world around him, and theatre itself, in need of change. Deeply influenced by surrealism, he tried to create a theatre that could awake the dormant dream images of the mind. Although Artaud sounds very interesting on a theoretical level, he is one of those practitioners that is often difficult for theatre folks to grapple with, since his ideas go beyond the ‘norms’ into the foreign ground of the unconscious. Therefore, the best way to approach the essence of his work is by experimenting through engagement of our instrument – the body. And that’s what we did.
We looked at Salvador Dali’s paintings, played with what he depicts and explored how we could incorporate the soul of the dream-like worlds that surrealists created. A journey began towards a theatre of myth and ritual, a journey where reality and dreams are not separate but always juxtapose each other. But how can anyone embody a dream? Dreams are made of nothing substantial and our bodies were floating around the space, which gave a new dimension to breathing. Sounds and screams were produced without any need to put in any meaning or use words. An animalistic version of ourselves came out and an extraordinary contradiction was soon revealed in our bodies – a contradiction that can be found in ancient dance traditions like Balinese dance.
Starting from our own previous dreams we created scenarios and improvised on them. And dreams are not always gentle or mild. Violent sculptures, creepy soundscapes and abstract movements were used in order to share our dream sensations with an audience. The dreams we presented were cruel, but the audience laughed. Why? We discovered that there is a peculiar dream essence communicated within the group – a common essence that bombards the senses and leads to a possible emotional release. This subconscious common understanding cannot be interpreted with our minds or put into words. A need to provoke our senses was slowly cultivated.
We also experimented with the relationship between performer and audience, by placing spectators at the very centre of a performance while actors surrounded them. Our audience of classmates was immediately affected by such a space redefinition since they felt more exposed and vulnerable, yet more integrated with the performers and the world that was shared with them.
Using short sequences from plays by Samuel Beckett, and Shakespeare's King Lear and Edward Bond’s Lear, we played with shadows and lights (torches and blindfolds), sounds and silence, and created short stories for our classmates. There are many ways to tell a story. We learned not to pay too close attention to the ‘story’ itself, but rather to its spiritual significance. The essence of any journey is the truth behind its reality. Storytellers seek to translate the ‘truth’ of the text, and not the literal meaning of the words. We realised again how words can have many different meanings, experimenting with text (intoned, shouted, whispered, wheezed, howled and groaned): the contradiction with the denotative meanings of the words establishes a new relationship between the performer and the audience, a relationship based on an unconscious level.
Theatre is a world of senses and the performer is an agent provocateur for the audience to step into this magic world. Theatre is a world of doubles, a creation of a dangerous, sensory experience, which assaults and swamps the audience, leaving them exhausted and changed. The world constantly changes and theatre of cruelty depicts this change.
Another day of sun. And we change.