revew: Andy Smith – The Preston Bill
The Preston Bill/
by Andy Smith/
prod by Fuel/
Martin Harris Centre, Manchester University/
/OR/: theatre as technology/hauntology and/or machine
If your sense of self is tied to your physical body, then losing yourself requires some sort of alienation from that, perhaps through loss of agency over your labour power. Historically this has entailed disenfranchisement and death and it’s hard for me not to sympathise with the Luddites when I consider their very being was under threat of erasure.
Machines are powerful and often malevolent things. I begin writing this unsure whether it will turn out to be a review of Andy Smith’s The Preston Bill. In an oblique way, even mentioning the show turns this into a critical comment on it. I find myself thinking (and have been for a while) about theatre as a technology, and what that entails, and what metaphors can be used to unpick our relationship with that technology, as audiences, critics and makers.
I am convinced in the idea that theatre is a technology, in the same sense as language in general is a technology and in the sense that technology need not necessarily be divorced from evolution. Our techniques for translating the world continue to evolve, faster than our physical bodies are capable. Theatre is a technology for generating and interpreting meaning, with the results being various but so far (as far as I can tell) we tend to be agreed that it requires an audience, at least.
In his Grundrisse, specifically the Fragment on Machines, Marx writes of the alienation of the labour of the worker from the process of production, when the machine is introduced to the process: ‘it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it […] The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.’*
Marx reckons, and Paul Mason persistently advocates, that the machine by its very nature destroys the traditional relationship between production and labourer. When the machine becomes the ‘virtuoso’, the worker becomes secondary to its mechanical needs. There’s a similar risk of this happening to a piece of theatre, with the performer(s) becoming secondary to the servicing and successful execution of the show. You end up with shows like Les Miserables and Cats, which can outlive their casts.**
The practices of makers like Andy Smith, I think, actively oppose the possibility of a piece of theatre becoming mechanical. Smith stands onstage for 50 minutes and tells us the story of the life of a man named Bill, from Preston. Once, he picks up his ukulele and leads us in a chorus of a union song. When a couple of audience members enter late, he quickly explains what has happened so far. It is The Preston Bill‘s reliance on the joke of theatre, the trick in telling us we are somewhere we are not, which exposes the core of Smith’s practice. Smith stands in front of the audience and tells us we are ‘in the north of England’, which is true while we’re in Manchester but the line doesn’t change if he’s telling the show in Exeter, for example. Smith is live, we are live, the performance shifts as and when Smith allows it to, and he lets us know how in control of it all he is. Smith plays no second fiddle (ukulele) to his show.
It is no coincidence that The Preston Bill is also something of a call-to-arms, that the central Bill is a union man, that he loses his job to increased mechanisation. Though the push is more nuanced than a straight-up cry of anti-mechanisation, it is wise to the same ideas peddled by Marx and Mason; both in form and content, The Preston Bill stirs up the rivermud and does not blithely accept the hierarchy of machine over humanity.
The humanity (or rather the specific human, Bill) conjured by The Preston Bill is intriguing in itself. Bill does not appear, in that he is invoked, he is symbolised, but Bill does not literally appear – though Smith may declare his presence, may place him in the empty chair onstage. The entire show circles this specter, Bill, who haunts the stage, haunts the political past and forms a vacuum in the experience of the show. The vacuum is deliberate – Smith talks after the show about his ideas of ‘dematerialised’ theatre, placing the transformation of the performance in the minds of the audience. Bill is created out of our inability to see him, in a séance, a group act of coerced imagining. His absence speaks again to the world outside, the real world, wholly Bill-less, and the fact of the room we are in, implying the voices we have that might speak back.
I’m thinking again of this technology called theatre. In his dense Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida writes of the power of the dead, the passed: ‘The one who has disappeared appears still to be there, and his apparition is not nothing. It does not do nothing. Assuming that the remains can be identified, we know better than ever today that the dead must be able to work.’*** And I see another parallel, the relationship between a work of theatre and a work of criticism. Theatre criticism seems to me to be an act of ‘identifying the remains’ that are the affects left behind in a body that has experienced a piece of theatre. I see a piece, it lodges in me, I write about it, to either exorcise or conjure. We write about an expired piece of theatre, we put it to work.
No coincidence that the bulk of theatre reviews get written in the present tense. It is an act of necromancy – summoning up some permanent aspect we can set down in type of the immanent and expired thing we have already seen. Theatre criticism is archival – most obvious when you read something like a review from The Stage, highly formalised and deliberate towards its purpose. But theatre criticism is also an act of reliving, a simultaneous declaration of the show’s death, and affirmation of its continued life in us. The more writing about a piece of theatre gets done, the greater and more multiple its life beyond the room in which it occurs.
Night after night, Andy Smith lives, and the Preston Bill is conjured and killed. He is already dead every time the show begins, and always has, and never has, been.
*Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p693
**Which I’m not passing judgement on, just signposting as a mechanical thing.
***Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, p120