Under the weather

Any readers wondering what London is like at this time of year? Well, you and me both. It's been a strange week, most of which I've spent moaning softly and consumed with self-pity in my bed. And this differs how from the monkey's routine? Well, this time I've been unwell. London seems to have been gripped by some seasonal lurgy, and the bravest and best of our generation have been clutching their stomachs, mopping their fevered brows, and calling in sick at work.

Like the trouper I am (or rather, like the unsalaried freelance), I have nonetheless risen from my pillows when called on to review things. I'm not exactly Linda Evangelista, but like her I will leave my bed if the money is right. Which is to say, any money at all.

But does feeling a trifle under the weather impact on a critic's function? We all know that criticism is subjective, however much one resists or hones one's prejudices. But what if your subjectivity is tweaked by a general feeling of seediness? By headaches and intimations of nausea? Performers need to be in peak physical condition - but how about audiences?

I saw two shows this week, my friends. One a roistering promenade production by contemporary circus troupe NoFit State, and the other an epic, six-hour staging of Philip Pullman's anti-clerical fantasy His Dark Materials. I'm still writing them up, so will hang fire [update - a tabu review here] - but both were very effective, both had some spectacular moments, both had some significant flaws. And I'm pretty sure I responded to the effectiveness, spectacle and flaws in the way I'd normally do. But can I be sure?

It was certainly good to have something exciting to watch and think about beyond my own quilt. I guess as long as you're not missing chunks of the show because you're in a coma, or throwing a paroxysm, or hallucinating elements of the production that don't exist and wondering why the purple giraffe wasn't credited in the cast list, then you're fit to describe and analyse as usual.

And I do half believe in the therapeutic power of great art. Not necessarily to soothe savage breast or civilise the barbaric impulse. But simply, by focusing on something pretty darn amazing for a time, you can push physical symptoms to the back of your mind. I remember the first time I saw Pina Bausch's company, in the four-hour earthwork masterpiece Viktor. I had a bad cold and wasn't feeling fit for the marathon ahead, but left the theatre engaged, alive, sniffles banished. There's no room, it would seem, for traumatised women in print frocks, for repetitious torment on a dauntless scale, for sounds and images which seem wrenched from necessity - and for streptococci too. Something had to give, and I'm glad it was the germs.

April 3, 2009 5:19 PM | | Comments (3) |


Alison, I had no idea I was running such health risks by my cavalier theatre-going habits. It's a wonder that a show like, ooh, Buddy - The Musical, for example, didn't kill me off altogether. But the enthusiasm generated by a good show can make your blood skip for days afterwards.

Sanjoy, you're right, of course. We bring our full selves to a show, which sometimes entails so much extra baggage we should probably ask for an extra seat. And I couldn't imagine how you'd identify which factors were responsible for which reactions, even if they coud be mapped in such a simplistic way.

It's true! Bad art makes you sick, and great art drives away physical illness. Catullus noticed this a couple of millennia ago and I think he was absolutely correct. It certainly has those effects on me. I think the response (delight, dolour) feeds directly into your immune system. It does make art a riskier proposition than you might think...

Oh, synchronicity! Was that Viktor at Sadler's Wells, must be a good 10 years ago? It was my first Pina Bausch too, and I nearly didn't go because - I'd been lying in bed with flu all day and was a little delirious with cough mixture

Plus, I didn't think I'd like it that much. Boy was I wrong: it was a revelation. And it blasted away the germs (while it lasted).

Actually, I do think our physical state affects what we make of what we see. It's just one of many factors (how much we've seen recently, what we're expecting, whether it's dark or sunny or raining) - but so it goes, you can't discount those factors. The question is, whether you can factor them in. I don't think so - and even if you could, it wouldn't be worth it. The rewards would be meagre, and you'd miss the show.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on April 3, 2009 5:19 PM.

Practical criticism: couch or theatre? was the previous entry in this blog.

Move away from the couch is the next entry in this blog.

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