Posted by: stelladuffy | April 18, 2009

thinking about Panic at the Barbican

no, not the kind of panicking induced by that INSANE building – even harder to find one’s way round than the National (and that’s saying something), the kind of building where the dressing rooms are five floors above the theatre (mmm, useful!), the kind of building where, though you’re lost, mobiles don’t work either …. so you stay lost. The Barbican – a great bunch of flats, a very confusing ‘arts centre’. But the Improbable kind of Panic :

Phelim in his pants being sad/lovely/naughty. Angela dancing her truths. A giant wicker cock. Wonderful brown paper. Projections. The tears thing, the gorgeous falling tears thing. Nick making live/un-live music. Matilda flying/not-flying. Lucy’s brilliant tower block story. All the work and the cups of tea and buckets of wine and all those other people behind what is shown – and what is not. And yes, these people are my friends, which makes it different, I know. I’ve worked with Improbable and care about Improbable, and there is a special joy of seeing one’s friends being totally honest/lying wickedly and wondering about the in-between. (Hearing Guy laugh at the same.)

And I know that honesty is not every theatre-goer’s cup of tea. The gentlemen reviewers (all middle-aged & older men) who found Lifegame (when we did it at the Cottesloe) ‘too excrutiatingly honest’/embarrassing to see those truths.

I applaud this show for NOT tying it all together, giving us a conclusion, plaiting it all neatly up – and I do so even while I know I tend to prefer clear story (not agonised, structured, this-is-how-all-stories-work story, god save us from that) but I do like a narrative through-line. I know I do, and sometimes I wish I didn’t. Not a perverse, trying to be interesting wishing-I-didn’t, but just because my own preference for story above all probably leads me to miss out on other things, sometimes. It sometimes leads me to be less brave than I would (often, not always!) like to be.

What seeing Panic, which (imo) has a fitful, there-not there narrative line, reminded me is that I want to be allowed to make work (books, theatre) – I want us all to be allowed to make work – that isn’t all tied up, that doesn’t show us the way to a neat ending, that doesn’t suggest what we ought to think, and that isn’t a neat progression – I really believe I should be allowed to make work like that and yet I also accept that many people find that kind of work unsatisfying and even unsettling, and that quite often I’m one of those people.

I’ve said this plenty of times before, but with The Room of Lost Things I really did want to write a more open-ended book (there are two endings, I would have been happy with more), I wanted to be able to write something as ‘real’ as I could make it and not at all ‘normal’ story structure and either I simply don’t know enough yet to do it well (well enough, yet), or it’s just not possible in a novel. The book became a bit more traditional. Still making me happy for trying something different, and still too disjointed for some reviewers, still too lacking in big fat storyline for some readers. (Actually, thinking about it now, I have not-spelled-out/up-to-the-reader endings in at least 3 books …)

As a maker of work, I maintain my right to try new things (or old things differently). To try to play with what story might be. With dance, with many kinds of music, with some film, we tend to allow more leeway, more right to show stuff and then let the audience join it all together. With novels and with theatre we still seem to want (as readers, as audiences) to be LED.

I do and I don’t want to be led. I do and I don’t want to lead. I do and I don’t want to go into the forest. (Though I always want to go to the beach.) I want to be Pan and be pursued by Pan – mmm, and caught by Pan! I want theatre to make me laugh and to move me and I want to be satisfied and also to still have questions. It makes me very happy to see a grown man on stage semi-naked after so many many many years of seeing women doing the same, time after time, so often that now we don’t even question it. I love seeing theatre USING projection, rather than theatre trying desperately to be (cheap) film by using projection – and therefore failing at being either. I am always delighted when people are honest about sexuality. And I do very much like theatre where no-one is shouting at anyone else pretending to have an emotion.

(On the other hand, why don’t I ever get to be in the shows with the good frocks?)


  1. really good response to what is essentially (imo) a performance of a moment in a process. With one eye regarding what is honest and whether it matters, and the other regarding the importance of stories and myths in making sense of real experience, this on-stage ‘sharing’ is neither easy nor all that satisfying. Worth seeing though, I thought.

  2. but see, I did find it satisfying – that’s what I’ve tried to (clearly not clearly enough!) say above. That I tend not to EXPECT to be ‘satisfied’ without a full/clear/obvious narrative and conclusion and ‘message’, and yet, if I allow that I need to have input too, that it’s part of my job as audience/as reader, to also contribute what I think/feel/experience (as in the blog, as in the discussions I’ve had with people since seeing Panic) – then, what comes out of this kind of work tends to satisfy (or certainly interest) me more, precisely because I am engaged in and thinking about it, than stuff that is more traditionally ‘formed’. I wonder if this is also partly an explanation for the rise in/enthusiasm for book clubs? That people want to share the experience more than we have been led to believe we ought to, that the shared experience of being in the same space is not enough, that we also want a shared experience of talking about it. Maybe we need more *theatre clubs a la book groups?

    * realises it’s a brilliant idea. that it happens anyway, sort of, individual theatres/groups running their own, after-show discussions etc, but not (that I’ve noticed) as a movement. Richard and Judy (and Stella’s) Theatre Club anyone?

  3. I saw Panic on Friday. I enjoyed the vulnerability of Man (as opposed to woman ) the sharing of the complexities that make up a man’s sexuality. where somehow the nymphs/ women seemed more straightforward than the man (or was it men?) which is so unusual! (that they be portrayed thus)
    I took 2/3 of my children (the oldest , a boy,having stayed up for 48 hours to do a-level photography coursework) and was glad. 12 year (girl) old didn’t understand everything..and she was fine with that being an age to know that there is more to the adult world than she understands yet, but will in time. My 15 year old (girl) was thoughtful .
    the frocks were Lovely lovely.

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