I got to see a work-in-progress show of Daniel Kitson’s TREE last night. I enjoyed it on many levels, and it made me think about the relationship between his extremely distinctive ‘style’ and playwriting.
Yes, some of you will already have grunted in annoyance and are probably already commenting on the immense amount of arts-based privilege-checking I’m due. I’m also not really qualified to talk about the relationship between storytelling and theatre in a wider context, but if what follows is so awful that it prompts someone to do that, then I would love to read it.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a LOT of Daniel Kitson (all of it? LIKE F*CK I HAVE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kitson#Live_shows) and a lot of contemporary new writing. I’d go so far as to say that I know barely a single playwright who doesn’t just ‘not-care’ about him, but actually wouldn’t go out of their way to see him (if possible – this is a man whose name alone can destroy any online booking system on any given day). It’s a level of devotion not even enjoyed by Stewart Lee, who is probably the next closest attainable equivalent outside theatre itself.
Ah yes, ‘outside theatre’. Is Daniel Kitson ‘outside theatre’ or is he essentially still a stand-up with a unique gift for lyricism and plot progression? That’s a question that even he might not be able to answer, most likely because he wouldn’t give a shit about someone trying to put him in a box. Let’s call him a ‘performer’ – he performs on stage, that’s beyond dispute.
So, back to TREE. It’s a reasonably radical departure in that it’s a character-based two-hander also featuring Tim Key. The closest to a two-hander that he’s done before (that I’ve seen) was the verse-based Lucinda Ding and the Monstrous Thing (which I reckon partly got its title from this old Scooby Doo episode: http://scoobydoo.wikia.com/wiki/A_Highland_Fling_With_a_Monstrous_Thing – DISCUSS). Whilst Kitson is credited with the writing (and, to be fair, declares that he wrote it), it would be interesting to know whether and to what extent it was collaborative, since Key is a celebrated performer in his own right and I can’t imagine he was roped in simply because of the star wattage partly generated by his extremely f*cking good outing in Alpha Papa.
Lucinda Ding…was very different in a lot of ways, but one comparison is that the ‘classic’ Kitson of say, It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later or After the Beginning, Before the End (which to me are closer to ‘story-telling’ in the purest sense) is at least slightly subservient to another style – verse with Lucinda Ding, and pure drama with TREE. However, TREE differs again in that it’s in the first person. This is the first first-person show of his that I’ve seen – you might have seen one that I haven’t, if so your thoughts would be very welcome.
The difference between monologue in storytelling and drama to me, in my head, is as follows: when telling a story, you stand outside it – generally in the third person, with more knowledge than the characters in the story and (as a consequence) expected to be impartial and truthful. When telling a story through drama you’re almost expected to be partial, deliver in the first-person and have at any given stage the same amount of knowledge as your characters. That’s a generalisation, obviously, there will be any amount of evidence that that analysis is wrong, but watching TREE last night, that was what occurred to me.
The main problem with TREE is a lack of drama. That’s got nothing to do with it being a work-in-progress show, by the way, it’s far more fundamental. Yes, there are sequences where characters drift into reverie maybe more than would be usual. There’s nothing wrong with this – Philip Ridley does this a LOT and indeed embraced it in this year’s Dark Vanilla Jungle, which might have been what made that one of his strongest shows that I’ve seen. There are worse things in the world than occasionally allowing both your character voices to blend when one should be speaking and the other ‘enabling’. The bigger issue is the end.
Yeah, dramatic endings are hard. But endings in storytelling are differently hard because it’s more okay for everyone to know what they are. We’re not watching the story evolve – it’s already there. It’s being delivered by someone outside it, so we don’t expect it to ‘live’. Our relationship to it is therefore different. Whether by their onstage or reported actions, when we’re watching characters we want them to develop somehow. I won’t spoil the ending of TREE, it hasn’t even technically started yet, but it has an issue in this regard. Lacking clear drama, something that the characters respectively want and try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to change in order to get, you’re not left with many options for resolution. Not many that work anyway…
As I said, I know a lot of playwrights who adore Daniel Kitson. I still do. In a lot of ways TREE works extremely well and frankly Key and Kitson (notwithstanding their ‘comic whimsy supergroup’ billing) are a joy to watch together, perhaps even more so in a WIP context where a certain ‘scrappiness’ is part of the charm. But it’s probably the first show of this most un-pin-down-able of performers that feels like it can be properly judged as ‘theatre’. So that’s what I’m doing.
As John McClane once said: ‘Welcome to the party, pal…’*
*I hope this article doesn’t come across as the equivalent of dropping a dead crook onto Daniel Kitson’s notional police car. That’s not the idea at all. Although I’m now obsessed by the idea of a ‘Die Hard’ remake featuring Kitson as Sergeant Powell. And so are you.