This summer I was unfortunate enough to see Mephisto Waltz at the EdinburghFringe. Performed by the Russian group Derevo and billed as a physicaltheatre/dance piece, I was expecting great things, primarily because it hadreceived several five star reviews. The piece, however, did not live up to myexpectations. I wasn't just disappointed by the production, I was disturbed.Never before haveI sat through a show that simultaneously made me want to throwup, cry, and leave the theatre; but then again I guess there's a first time foreverything. There was nothing enjoyable about the experience on any level, andI couldn't (and still to this day, can't) work out why on earth The Times gavefive stars to a group of five bald Russians writhing about onstage withwatermelon and frankfurters. Either the reviewer was a masochist, or they justdecided that the piece was so unique, so pretentious, and so weird that it mustbe good (indeed there seems to be an assumption when it comes to dance that theweird era piece is, the deeper and more meaningful it must be).
Aside from the mental state of these reviewers, the piece called somethingelse into question: why on earth would someone want to create a piece oftheatre this distressing? As human beings, we seem to have an innate desire tobring stories to life. Thus, for as long as there has been civilisation, therehas been theatre -- the Greeks even had a god dedicated entirely to theatre(although, admittedly, Dionysus was also the god of wine, which suggests anentirely different innate human quality). But why? What is the point?
Theimmediate answer to this question for most is 'entertainment value' - wego to the theatre to enjoy ourselves. We pay good money to see these shows and'Gollygosh, we are going to have a good time!' Indeed Brecht, a key theatre practitionerfrom the 20th Century, said that 'from the start it has been the theatre'sbusiness to entertain people'. But if this is the case, MephistoWaltz hasfailed miserably. Nobody could have left the theatre after that show and said tothemselves, 'Well that was nice, wasn't it?' You can't claim to have 'enjoyed'it, so what was its purpose?
Others see theatre as a form of escapism. Theatre allows us to run away fromour lives, if only for a couple of hours. It allows us to forget our mundane troublesand live vicariously through others. At the theatre, we can be part of a greatlove story and get our happy ending; or we can live out dramatic adventures farmore exciting than anything we would encounter in 'real' life. In short, we canbe anybody else but ourselves. If this is theatre's true purpose, then onceagain Derevo's piece has missed the mark. Surely nobody in their right mindwould long to escape into the world of Mephisto Waltz; a world in whichterrifying, giant bird-men in high heels chase you about the stage for a goodten minutes? If such people do exist then I recommend we monitor them extremelyclosely.
If the point of theatre isn't to entertain us, and isn't for us to escapeinto, then maybe its primary purpose is to educate us. For this, again, I turnto the reliable Ancient Greeks. As any good Drama student knows, the Greeksloved their tragedies. Tragedies were used to display the power of thegods(interfering so-and-sos who got stressy if humans tried to control theirown destinies) and to warn the common man about what will happen to them ifthey behave inappropriately. In other words: to teach. This concept hasfollowed us into modern times, albeit one step further. Brecht felt that thepurpose of theatre should be to provoke people to do something about theproblems of the world. Theatre is an educating force that raises people'sawareness of the world's plights and forces them to pursue change. Needless tosay, MephistoWaltz falls short once more. There is no plot from which politicalissues can be raised; there is no downfall from which the audience can learn.In fact, there is nothing but a huge mess of smeared watermelon to clear up atthe end of the performance.
Perhapstheatre is 'pointless'. Perhaps it is an utterly useless art form. Perhapsitdoesn't matter why actors, directors and audience members feel compelled bythestage. Whatever conclusion you come to on this issue, I leave you withonepiece of advice: if you value your peace of mind, stay away from Derevo.