Book Review: Performing The Unstageable

This book is a great read. It starts with flashes of performed moments, varied glimpses of recent performances which transform impossibilities into realities recognised by spectators. To set the tone, Karen Quigley reconstructs these disparate happenings ‘in the full view of what is impossible’ which are in playful denial of contextual expectations yet examples of the impossible ‘performed into being’. We feel the drum rolls as Quigley – our emcee to the cabaret of acts which unfold in evidence – declaims that, in spite of technological developments, much that is unstageable remains. Surely nothing is truly impossible in a theatre? Is that the question? Not so. To believe this obscures ‘the work of understanding and performing the unstageable in material terms’. To focus on failure to overcome the limitations of the stage is actually to fail to see possibility.

Quigley’s narrative thread explores what is ‘unstageable’, weaving a creative vision of ‘thinking with impossibility rather than trying to circumvent it’. Packing in insightful details she leads to the heart of creative acts and their intentions as well as into engagements with meanings derived from attempts. The book’s subtitle conveys a binary view of what can happen out front in theatre– success and failure – but with a clever addition – imagination. This conveys that the latter is paramount for overriding this binary, for both creators and spectators as ‘the work of the audience … functions as a meaningful part of theatre and performance-making’. Imagination is at the core of theatre; something might be regarded as artificial or inadequate off-stage,imagination can remain at the core of what theatre is, since failure is part of success in the ‘play’ of theatre with fantasy. For Quigley, unstageability is a vital challenge to the world of performance as its story is usually told, not least because often what failed has gone unreported with the trend for history to emphasise what has been achieved. Utopian possibilities are opened up and the challenge is awakened to revisit the past for what has been forgotten, unrepresented, untranslatable, kept in the closet, is between-the-lines, has been censored, neglected, lost, misunderstood, undocumented, destroyed or lie somewhere unfinished. Representation becomes far more interesting when we look at what is being attempted in terms of processes of creation and mediation internal to a performed event and experience. This perspective opens up the potential for new ideas and new means beyond applying tried and tested means to replicate external realities.

Karen Quigley, Performing The Unstageable: Success, Imagination, Failure (London: Methuen Drama, 2020)

Four principal areas of enquiry are shaped from this fascination. They are simultaneously thematic and conceptual: the ‘productive resistance between text and performance’ explored through stage directions, the ‘gap’ or ‘dislocation’ exposed by adaptation, the paradox of the ‘porous’ barrier between audience and performer in demonstrations of violence, and the apparent apparitions of disappearing ghosts. An improbable journey is set out for those who will make their way through from start to finish, travelling the whole route, with visible stations for those stepping into the narrative at chapter breaks. Signposted are opportunities to reflect on what constitutes success in staging and to ponder why and how live performance evades becoming ‘concrete and material’ on stage. History plays a key part on our tour, but this feels a more contemporary investigation, relevant to current thinking valuing creative arts as more process than product. Due to the questioning style pervading this book, there is a strong sense that it could be up to us to decide what can be left behind and what brought to life again, We are reminded at the end of the line, however, that unstageability ‘means different things to different audiences and practitioners through centuries of theatre practice’ and so there is a need to bear historiography in mind and memories intact.

Further evidence of Quigley’s philosophical approach is also revealed in the index. Here conceptual terminology has significant presence receiving more page citations than other entries such as to people, things, events. The inclusion of a host of other ‘un’ words unpacking the title log Quigley’s approach: unperformable, unpresentable, unrepresentable, unseeable, untranslatable. Underpinning the analyses of examples lie such terms as anxiety, invisibility and the post-dramatic which temper notions of failure liable to end discussion. The concluding bibliography is wide-ranging and will be super helpful to scholar-practitioners wanting to deepen their thinking on  the nature of avant-garde challenge with which contemporary performance arts are intrinsically engaged, and especially pertinent to the constraints and possibilities of the emergent post COVID-19 virtual stage. Whilst useful, the lengthy theorising (which constructs a more conventional second introduction to the book after the more alternative and engaging beginning) might have made a better conclusionary framing of the territory had it been placed after the analyses, rather than presenting itself as a framework through which the specificities be viewed. However, there is, of course, always more than one way to structure a book and nothing to stop readers approaching it in a different order.

Reading this book is like turning a garment inside-out to expose the stitching. The problems confronted by theatre are seen as unresolvable with a purpose, and not as negatives. In places, it is an issue that there are so many ideas the text gets compacted. Staying the course when presented with many options from other theorists, is sometimes tricky, although the range of views is curated.  But once Quigley moves into her own voice to apply her thinking to recent work the text breathes, for example, when discussing Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. This is one of many instances of well-grounded research in production history which includes perceptive textual reading but could acknowledge that speculation rather than evidence of response presents an issue for an argument seeking to compare impacts of staging difficulties on different audiences in different times. Generally, the book takes the approach of theorising audience response in various contexts, such as in the confrontation with horror. Quigley’s readings are underpinned by her own experiences, but wider and historical reception might have added crucial contextual perspectives.

Overall, this book, with its confident expression of a huge frame of reference across Anglophone theatre with some European examples from several centuries presented mainly through 20th and 21st century production practice, is extremely valuable as a resource for theatre-makers, especially of contemporary devised practice. It is also accessible and engaging to historians and students of backstage craft interested in how theatre works and inspiring for theorists exploring questions of aesthetics and creative purpose. 

 Words by Charlotte Purkis, Principal Lecturer in Drama, University of Winchester, UK.