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  • Stephanie Fuller

Content must die - long live form

I recently went to see the truly absurd spectacle that was Little Wimmin by experimental theatre & dance company Figs in Wigs. It was a whole bunch of bonkers that I could really get into. Firstly, there was an interval after 20 minutes, something that I found pretty funny and also annoying, and I gave them a mini round of applause for it in my head - what fun to piss off an audience after 20 minutes. Secondly, it started as an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and ended up being a swirling set of skits and dance routines that felt pretty detached from the original novel.

From looking at information on the show beforehand I thought I knew what to expect - another radical adaptation of a classic piece of literature that would be reframed in a modern context and shed some light on some meaningful truth that we hadn't seen before. Blah Blah Blah. Don't I sound fancy?

I guess because I'd seen a fair few adaptations I went in there expecting a show like Dead Centre's Chekhov's First Play, which was so poetic, perceptive and moving. It dissolved all of the rigidity of theatre and of humanity into a beautiful puddle of mess. It exposed everyone’s raw needs – to be loved, accepted, to have hope and comfort. It did everything that Chekhov does but in an experimental way, and it just blew me away.

But Little Wimmin was not this. It did distil some of the character's inner truths into an irreverent dance number which involved Jo becoming a man with a horses head, Beth (dead) in a kind of cheesecloth bag, Amy as a giant nose, and Meg as a life size lace glove. After this, however, the show moved in a different direction with absurd skits involving jelly being wobbled on one of those fitness vibration machines, and a 25 minute construction of a giant margarita being made on stage and drunk by the cast out of oversized straws.

The content, themes and analysis of Louisa May Alcott's text no longer seemed to matter and what emerged was a truly playful tussle with form. It felt like it departed so drastically from the novel that it became it's own thing, a barrel of bonkers that existed because the makers enjoyed what they were doing, not to provide audiences with a profound and revealing truth about the content.

So that made me think about how often in art we are too hung up on the content and don't give enough time over to simply playing in the form. When you tell someone you've watched a film or a play, often the next question is 'what was it about?'. As an artist myself who makes experimental theatre, that question often irks me a bit, because I know that for my show to be marketable and sellable I need to have a catchy 'about' line of copy, ready to bash out whenever someone asks. Because if I said to someone that the show is not really about an event or a person or book or cultural moment, and said that it exists simply to play with the form, sadly most people wouldn't come to see it.

Why does everyone get so hung up on content? I love a good story as much as the next person, but a play that takes a form and extrapolates it so much that it explodes, for me, becomes far more revealing and truthful than an narrative play with a traditional arc. However, it's not as easy to summarise in a one-line elevator pitch. Therefore, it's not marketable.

What I loved about Little Wimmin was it's complete and confident level of playful abandonment. But even I was a little disappointed that I didn't seem to get any larger grand narrative that would move me. But is that just because I've been trained to want it? Or is it because I actually want it? I can't seem to work it out. I think that the dominant idea that content is more important than form has resulted in a pretty deadened consumption of art in general. It's hierarchical, snobbish and limiting.

Abstract visual art is often a playful arrangment of lines, shapes and colours. Experimental theatre does the same with text, images and structure. It's fun to watch and leaves lingering thoughts in your brain. It doesn't have to be 'about' anything per se, it can be there for enjoyment's sake. For the enjoyment of the artist and the enjoyment of the audience.

Companies like Forced Entertainment have been exploring form over content for years, and while their work is delicious, it feels like they have been the dominant players for too long. Figs in Wigs have built up a huge momentum and are touring their work to the big theatres in the UK, but we still have a long way to go.

Long live Figs in Wigs and other companies out there - let's kill content and put form into the cryogenic freezer.


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