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Are theatre and poetry really so different? via Books: Poetry | guardian.co.uk by Natasha Tripney on 10/21/09
With theatrical monologues and peformance poetry more popular than ever, it's become increasingly hard to tell the two forms apart
Poetry and theatre are part of the same stream, and yet there's often a perceived division between the two. I wonder why. Poets often write for the stage, they collaborate with theatre makers or have versions of their work brought to the stage by others – as in The World's Wife, based on the poems of Carol Ann Duffy – but the area where the two forms swim closest together is that of performance poetry. One could even argue that all theatre is, in one sense at least, poetry performed.
Inua Ellams's The 14th Tale, which opens at BAC in London this week, is a case in point. Originally a BAC Scratch commission, it was created with – then taken to Edinburgh by – the production company Fuel, where it went on to receive a Fringe First Award. Ellams is a word and graphic artist, and The 14th Tale is a lyrical, funny and evocative journey through a young man's continent-leaping childhood, a verbally nimble account of the escapades of a boy born of a "long line of trouble-makers". The piece was written not to be read, but specifically to be performed by the author himself – and not just by the author mumbling his words into a microphone. Though the production is minimal in its aesthetic, there are sound effects as well as narrative playfulness.
Ellams says that, while everything else he does is "pure poetry", this project counts as pure theatre: "I wrote it specifically to be in such spaces," he says. In other words it's a poetic monologue, a term you could easily apply to pieces such as Simon Stephens's Sea Wall or even to some recent rhythm-driven new writing for the stage, like Mark O'Rowe's Crestfall or Ali Taylor's Overspill, where the sheer thrill of language is the dominant force.
Luke Wright, co-curator of the Poetry Tent at Latitude and who occasionally performs at the Old Red Lion theatre in London, voices concerns that the need to create a more theatrical experience undercuts the idea that performance poetry is in itself exciting, arguing that self-contained poems can be just as thrilling as a longer monologue.
Ellams disagrees: "If theatre refers to something with dramatic quality, [that is] intense, moving, and inspiring," he says, "then a lot of spoken word is theatre." Yet reviewing Zena Edwards's moving and musical Security at BAC, Lyn Gardner commented that "although Edwards is a remarkable performer, she does not find a way to make the material justify its theatrical format". For her there was a missing bridge between the two mediums.
Maybe we shouldn't get too lost in labels; I find it exciting when poetry and theatre feed of one another, however that happens. We should let the words and the work speak for themselves.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2009