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  • Theatre, Intimacy & Engagement: The Last Human Venue
  • Joe Kelleher (bio)
Theatre, Intimacy & Engagement: The Last Human Venue. By Alan Read. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; 344 pp.; illustrations. $80.00 cloth, $32.95 paper.

Regular visitors to what Alan Read calls "the last human venue," or "theatre in the age of urban modernity" (272), are familiar with a warning sometimes posted on the walls of that venue or printed on their tickets: "latecomers will not be admitted." Late arrivals mean unwanted disturbance, for the performance and for that portion of its audience that were able to be there at the start, who know well enough that once the show has begun there will be no beginning again, at least not until this thing has come to its end. Or so we presume. However, every one of these presumptions is challenged by Read at some point in this book. He admits and attends to the unprepared perspectives and capacity to disturb of latecomers of all sorts, "remaindered" participants in "everything else which is actively occurring" (201), from late-arriving spectators at the contemporary theatre event, back through the first human artists of prehistory. The latter survive for us in representations of their troubled status as latecomers to the larger animal collective on a cave wall in Lascaux. This is a book in which if theatre has anything at all to offer to contemporary troubled times, it is precisely its capacity, as Read writes, to "begin again" (275) by provoking us to take notice of the forms of life to be encountered there, and to consider just how much these encounters might matter, in relation to our lives and also to lives other than our own. It is a book, we might say, in which the admission of latecomers is framed as a political question, in relation to the ends and functions of theatrical performance in the early 21st century.

Theatre, Intimacy & Engagement is a wide-ranging, mind-bogglingly detailed, intellectually generous, passionately imagined, and at the same time soberly argued warning against the banality of thinking regarding the relations of theatre and politics in our times. The sort of thing Read has in his sights is not only the unlikely or over-hopeful investments in theatre's efficacy as a tool of instrumental politics (27), but also the comfortable academic assumptions about the critical value of "marginal" practices (19).

Read is also however a writer for whom words, their particular resonances and associations, matter a lot. As soon as we use a word like banality in this context, we are obliged to recall that in his previous book, Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance (1993), Read was at pains to locate the ethical potentials of performance precisely in the "first human venue" (269), or as he referred to it then, the "unwritten theatre" of commonplace activities, in all their banality and triviality. In the new book, he is no less concerned with the overlooked values of the commonplace, but with a shift of focus not only from ethics to politics, but also arguably from fields of activity to scenes of "appearance," particularly as these are encountered in theatres that seem conscious of their "epochal" status.

Key examples, discussed in affectionate detail throughout the book, include the long-established and exemplary theatre practices of Forced Entertainment (Sheffield, UK), Goat Island [End Page 181] (Chicago, USA), and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio (Cesena, Italy), practices in which the theatre's "sense of its newness was braided with a vivid sense of its ending" (272). Equal attention, however, is given to scenes such as a childrens' nativity play where what appears to be a child's greeting may in fact be a waving goodbye; those Lascaux cave paintings already mentioned; a dubious white powder waved around by US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations in New York on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion; the children's playgrounds of architect Aldo Van Eyck inserted into abandoned spaces in post-war Amsterdam; and the architectural site, thick with the technology of surveillance, of a teenage boy's murder in South East London. At the latter site, for...


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pp. 181-183
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