Featured Review
The Global and Local Appeal of Kneehigh Theatre Company"/>

06th October 2022

Featured Review
The Global and Local Appeal of Kneehigh Theatre Company

Brand Kneehigh

By Catherine Trenchfield


Reviewed by Dr John Keefe

This book discusses, across nine chapters, the Kneehigh company (hereafter Kh.), its ethos, and style of theatre within a selective framework—the brand, the global, the local—that Catherine Trenchfield (hereafter CT) sets out. There are a number of case studies that become primarily illustrations of the company’s work within that framework.

From the viewpoint adopted, the book fulfils its aims, but the framing leaves several (implicit) questions unanswered about the central elements of theatre; what theatre-as-theatre is and may be; here, as manifested by Kh. in ways that are both shared across theatres, and particular to the company.

I will not summarise, nor look at every chapter nor every nuance of Catherine’s arguments. Rather, I will focus on the points and issues across the chapters raised by those questions as I outline the main lines and contours of the book. I aim to develop the discussion initiated by CT’s reflections, as a particular spectator, on Kh. as a company and brand, in relation to those questions. In doing this, I have to distinguish between the book’s reflections and analysis, my own views and critical-analytical positions, and my own responses and critique of the productions I have seen, and acknowledging how and where these shape and colour my response to the book.

The Introduction sets out what the author is aiming for: to “explore ‘Brand Kneehigh’ in relation to theories of globalisation... showing Cornish cultural identity as a core component... discuss the qualities attributed to ‘Brand Kneehigh’ and consider the ‘local’ and ‘global’ nature of their work” (p1). This is done by covering the history of the company over forty-two years from their origins in 1980 to the closure in 2022 taking in key productions and the creating of the Asylum performance space. As becomes clear, this is very much a personal journey through the company and stage works for CT, set out through the lens of her chosen tropes of ‘brand’, ‘local’, and ‘global’.

Thus, the term ‘Brand Kneehigh’ is borrowed from the company’s own coining as a ‘verbal logo’; an umbrella covering theatrical style, merchandise, gigs and events, performance projects and workshops. CT acknowledges that such a notion of brand is common to many companies as fundamental to their image, business model, advertising and selling, identity, and mark of quality. Perhaps the book can be partly characterised as trying to isolate and identify what Kh.’s USP is, in relation to similar companies?

Hence, the discussion of the pros and cons of such branding, the dangers of—borrowing Reballlato’s notion—‘McTheatre’, whereby the reaching-for and maintaining of a global brand lead to repetition and dilution. The questions that follow are considered but left open: do globalised productions lead to homogenisation; do these become forms of consumption and aspiration?

Perhaps it is the issue of cultural exchange that best exemplifies the tensions here; does such exchange become transactional, cultural commodification? CT acknowledges these tensions and discusses these in terms of the exchange denoted by trans-national collaboration, respectful and mutual sharing between global localities that share concerns. But are the difficulties, the negative connotations glossed over as ‘Brand Kneehigh’ is itself a gloss and given a gloss?

If a review is to raise questions, as well as give a fair overview, then the issues being addressed here stand for an underlying and problematic through-line of the volume: how terms are used and interpreted; how terms and principles are interrogated and applied to arrive at a constructive critique. I suggest any discussion of theatre and the staging’s produced must confront complexity and tensions, to work with the paradoxical, multifaceted, and hybrid nature of theatres; the kaleidoscopic pieces not flattened out, but in Derrida’s terms, remaining ‘beside’ each other in juxtaposition and dialectic.

Chapter 2 is key in this respect, where CT considers the archive, her use of archival material, and spectating as central to her discussion. Drawing on theory from Foucault, Taylor, Pearson and Shanks, and others, and following Derrida, the archive is seen as something active, source of interpretation, of re-contextualising, and creative. However, issues of the archival as such are not developed; rather CT outlines her own approach to the Kh. brand as a spectator drawing on her own extensive and rich ‘experiential archive’. My understanding of this is something akin to Rozik’s continual ‘process of generating theatre meaning’ and discussed in my own work (see below) as our ‘dynamic personal archive’. But CT’s acknowledged parameters of this study in its specificity and personal responses limit the discussion not only of 'the archival' but also of 'spectatorship'.

Thus, the section heading of ‘spectatorship’ is misleading as the principles denoted in the term are not explored; rather it is aspects of ‘spectating’ that are framed and discussed. There is no discussion of the components of spectatorship in relation to stage dramaturgy—mimesis, katharsis, empathy—nor any reference to current neurocognitive studies on mirror neurons, the mirror mechanism and embodied simulation as central elements of what spectatorship is; what I call ‘spectatorial dramaturgy’ (see below). I trust this is not an unfair criticism, but as already noted there is a tendency to either omit, stretch or over-reach the use of key terms.

Thus, here, for example, it is not ‘spectatorship’ but CT’s personal archival and spectating experiences becoming the basis for her reflections on the brand and company’s work. What follows from this is an implicit atomising of the spectatorial archive and experience, rather than the personal sitting beside the shared experience of the mise-en-scène based on the principles of European theatre and spectatorship.

From these general observations, I want to consider two of the Kh. productions that I have seen, and that CT uses as case studies, to offer some comparative responses from an informed spectator’s viewpoint. In other words, drawing on my own personal archive, my own spectatorial experiences.

A Matter of Life and Death; 2007

The first of Kh.’s stage adaptations from film, here the 1946 film by The Archers, that raised questions about such film-to-stage adaptation, whereby the change of medium arguably loses some essential element of the original work. (This gives rise to the implied but here left open question of such equivalent loss when moving from stage-to-screen?) There were two notable staging devices used by Kh.; the first playing with alternative ‘happy-or-sad’ endings chosen by chance, i.e. the flip of a coin. (In my own notes. I jotted down, “so a matter of life or death?”) Is it an overstretching of language to see this as ‘Brechtian’ as CT claims? Is the irony of The Archers production and its bitter-sweet ending captured in ‘and’ lost?

The second was the ‘image wall’ of faces of the victims of the Dresden and Coventry bombings. The case study covers the key points of the production, CT’s responses, and a fair inclusion of one review criticising Kh.’s tendency to put style over substance—one I would concur with.

But there is no spectatorial critique that develops CT’s observations about the show: the replacing of subtle romance with sexual frenzy; staging virtuosity replacing The Archer’s playful mise-en-scène; their cinematic strangeness becoming arguably shallow spectacle. More seriously, and returning to the second device, the observations concerning the image wall are not developed into a consideration of Kh.’s dramaturgical decision with its implication of moral equivalence, of flattening out what seem to be similar actions that arguably are differentiated by questions of just-unjust war.

The production is essentially discussed for itself as part of the global brand, not as a (missed) examination of moral dilemmas arising from particular dramaturgical decisions. Is the template of ‘brand’ constricting such further discussion here?

Brief Encounter; 2007 and 2018

This was presented in a cinema space with 1930-40s furnishings to give a claimed immersive experience, including period-costumed ushers and cream teas. However, again, a term such as ‘immersive’ is not discussed further – an aspect of décor and various conceits are given a weight denoted by the term not justified in this limited context and use.

As with A Matter of Life and Death, Catherine acknowledges a loss of “the quiet integrity of the original film” (p143) but the wider (critical) discussion of Kh.’s oft-pointed out tendency to replace quiet subtlety with loud spectacle and misplaced physicality is again not followed through; again, the company’s staging style is given a seeming gloss.

So, from my own notes: it was not immersive in any meaningful way; it became a pastiche of Coward’s period style and characters – the same negative stereo- and stock-types presented without any challenge or subtle subverting; stage and cinematic cliches used as dramaturgical devices and conceits.

Once again, we can share CT’s experience from a personal spectating viewpoint framed by the themes of the book, at the expense of analysing the show from first-critical and dramaturgical principles.

As an introduction and examination of Kneehigh’s work, the book gives a comprehensive overview from the acknowledged themes of ‘brand’, ‘local’, and ‘global’, and how these create their claimed USP.

The broad characteristics that Catherine claims for Kh. are set out in the context of these themes, funding policies, comparable theatre companies, and the company history over forty-plus years. Her decision to look at the company and work from the perspective of personal archive and spectating allows us to share her responses, to have our own dialogue with those responses.

The questions remain of whether the book claims too much for Kh., of whether criticism of their dramaturgy is given a gloss through the terms chosen and applied, of whether too much is claimed for the company when set alongside comparable companies and staging styles.

Given the current debate over climate and environmental issues, it is surprising that there is no discussion of the sustainability of touring, of the energy and carbon cost of such spectacle that Kh. gradually specialised in.

Perhaps this serves to simply highlight the changing context in which theatre needs to be discussed and questioned, and thus becoming a challenge to books about theatres—within the themes of this volume, how may a brand embrace this and other challenges facing theatres within the company brand claimed and presented?

References

Gallese, Vittorio (2018), ‘The Problem of Images: A View from the Brain-Body’,    Phenomenology and Mind 14, Firenze: Firenze University Press, pp. 70-79.

Keefe, John (2021) ‘Boltanski’s Dilemma: Mimetics, Distance and Spectating Suffering’,   Performing Ethos 11, Bristol: Intellect.

Keefe, John and Arntzen, Knut Ove (2020) Staging and Re-cycling: Retrieving, Reflecting and      Re-framing the Archive, Abingdon: Routledge.

Murray, Simon and Keefe, John (2016), Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed., Abingdon: Routledge.


John Keefe has worked as a lecturer in theatre-performance-film, a theatre director and a performance dramaturg since 1979.


The Global and Local Appeal of Kneehigh Theatre Company: Brand Kneehigh is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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