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Reviewed by:
  • Theatre of the Real by Carol Martin
  • Liz Tomlin
Carol Martin. Theatre of the Real. Studies in International Performance. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xiii + 198, illustrated. $80 (Hb).

Theatre of the Real offers an analysis that productively extends Martin s previous body of work on verbatim and documentary performance to address, in addition, models of theatre that engage with the real through diverse practices. The study thus broadens what we might understand as [End Page 280] theatre of the real, to encompass aesthetics that foreground the self of the actor; the use of puppets to reconfigure imagined yet “real life” events; adaptation that utilizes classic fictional texts to reflect on contemporary reality; interactive theatre; and the use of mixed media, documentary footage, and live performance to comment on shifting perspectives on the real.

Martin’s study revisits key historical productions by Peter Weiss, the Performance Group, and JoAnne Akalaitis, but her conceptual framing of a theatre of the real is predominantly contextualized within the contemporary moment, in which sophisticated and global mass-media communication and social networks increasingly construct our experience of the real. Martin positions the narratives of theatre and performance as an additional, and politically vital, channel of information, which contributes to the framings and reframings of reality through “acts of imagination in the forms of reiteration, representation, and narration” (74). Martin’s analysis of theatre practice is correspondingly framed by moments, such as her own experience of 9/11, where a sense of the real is constructed from a complex layering of live and mediatized perception of events.

Martin’s rationale for considering such a diverse range of practice within the rubric of theatre of the real is that all the productions she discusses “intend for spectators to reconsider the world around them on the basis of the theatrical experiences these works offer” (175). Martin is clear, however, that ideological distinctions can be made between practices that offer a “ritual revocation of authority” and those that merely “ease the dissonance of irresolvable difference to enable forgetting of uncomfortable narratives” (16). This distinction is examined most explicitly in the two chapters that engage predominantly with verbatim and documentary theatre. In her analysis of theatrical representations of Jews, Martin offers a range of examples of how the real is represented, including the anonymous puppets of Hotel Modern’s Kamp; “mere speaking tubes” (90), as Peter Weiss described the figures in his production The Investigation; the autobiographical self-performance mode of Leeny Sack and the biographical portrayal in Emily Mann’s Annulla; and the verbatim performance of Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and David Hare’s monologue Via Dolorosa.

Martin highlights some key ideological distinctions among the choices she examines, such as the contrast between the singular voice that dominates Hare’s narrative and Deavere Smith’s multiplicity of characterizations. Likewise, Martin identifies the capacity of Hare’s accomplished and entertaining text to smooth over the “complexity of the convictions, history, and suffering of those he observes” (107), rather than leave the pauses for thought that Sack and Mann do, enabling us to struggle with sometimes irreconcilable realities. In another chapter, Martin not only critiques the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, for its one-sided perspective on the events that occurred in Gaza, but also interrogates the context of its original [End Page 281] production, of productions transferred elsewhere, and of the press discourse that surrounded its development for the Royal Court Theatre in the United Kingdom, arguing that this further exacerbated what she reads as a problematic ideological intervention into a complex political situation. Emerging throughout the study is Martin’s conviction that a theatre of the real should strive for ways of embracing and sustaining the contradictions – and sometimes lack of resolution – of the real events of history. Such a perspective is firmly allied to a poststructuralist politics, advocating pluralism, complexity and scepticism as necessary strategies to combat the oversimplified ideological narratives of the mass media’s representations of the real. For Martin, what is required is “an aesthetic and analytical discourse that represents the real in order to call it into question” (174).

The importance of this study lies...


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pp. 280-282
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