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Reviewed by:
  • Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction, and: Physical Theatres: A Critical Reader
  • Phillip Zarrilli (bio)
Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction. By John Keefe and Simon Murray. London: Routledge, 2007; 230 pp. £65.00 cloth, £18.99 paper.
Physical Theatres: A Critical Reader. Edited by John Keefe and Simon Murray. London: Routledge, 2007; 283 pp. £65.00 cloth, £21.99 paper.

During the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, the term “physical theatre” began to be used by critics and academics to describe a diverse body of work including DV8, Complicite, David Glass, Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, tanztheater, etc. When first used, “physical theatre” seemed [End Page 174] to capture often edgy, alternative approaches utilized to create non-mainstream, non–textually based performances.

Published simultaneously as companion books, the Introduction (CI) and Reader (CR) volumes of Physical Theatres attempt to “map out that complex network of propositions, actions, events and dispositions which arguably constitute—and have constituted—the landscape of physical theatres and the physical in theatre” (CI, 1). The books are “an investigation and interrogation of the principles, tropes, and practices that make up physical theatres/the physical in theatres” (CI, 5).

Murray and Keefe note how today’s use of the term “physical theatre fails to enjoy the same cultural and theatrical resonance it had in the 1980s” (CI, 2). In his commissioned essay, Franc Chamberlain explains how the term began to exhaust its usefulness as an increasing “breadth of work covered” by the term expanded exponentially (CR, 120). Whether the term has exhausted its usefulness or not, so embedded has “physical theatre” become in the UK that it is part of a commonplace descriptive critical vocabulary, and many university/drama schools offer modules or complete programs in physical theatre. For Chamberlain, the institutionalization of physical theatre is a “sure sign that it’s reached a point of exhaustion” since “it no longer describes a movement of renewal in British theatre and performance, nor an innovative way of teaching or making performance, nor even a particularly useful critical term” (CR, 120).

But given the importance of the phenomenon marked by use of the term “physical theatre,” especially in the UK, Murray and Keefe’s two volumes are a timely contribution as they attempt to wrestle with this slippery, problematic, awkward term and the phenomena it marks. Their two texts will no doubt become primary reading for the many modules in physical theatre offered in the UK and perhaps beyond.

Murray and Keefe are sanguine about the problems they face in attempting to critically address the recent historical phenomenon of physical theatre. Their first choice is to emphasize the plurality and hybridity of the types of theatre/performance created and marked by this category—physical theatres. Rather than attempting to provide a fixed definition of “physical theatre,” they offer a “grounding premise: that ‘physical theatre’ as a term, idea or concept captures the aims of certain movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” that “confront the continuing hegemony of a theatre defined by its literary and verbal dimensions” (CI, 6). Two of the most important observations Murray and Keefe point to are: the close relationship between devising and physical theatres; and the difference between the work of the actor as a collaborator/creator and the more traditional view of the actor in textually based theatre as an interpreter.

Their second choice—to address the “physical in theatre”—is guided by an obvious truism: that all theatre/performance cannot but be physical. While in the abstract this second choice seems wise, and while I admire the ambition of their project, this decision creates a problem. Addressing the “physical in theatre” expands the scope of the volumes to cover not only the immediate historical past since the 1980s, but virtually all of Western theatre history. At times the authors attempt to accomplish too much.

Sharing virtually the same “Introduction,” both books are organized into six main chapters (Critical Introduction) or sections (Critical Reader). The strength of the Critical Introduction lies in those chapters or sections of chapters that focus on the work of specific practitioners and/or provides sufficient examples of work practices that ground their discussion of various aspects and...


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pp. 174-177
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