Catwalk, which opens at the Tricycle Theatre on May 28, is likely to attract a lot of attention. First, because it deals with a contentious and perennially topical theme — racism in the fashion industry — but second, and more indicative of a current trend on the London stage, because it is itself an example of multi-media theatre.
In its use of music and dance, director Kristine Landon-Smith's production of D.J. Rita Ray and poet Malika Booker's work, is typical of a definite trend in the theatre: the use of video, music and dance to enhance "pure" theatre.
Both opera and dance (specifically, modern dance) have used video screens and unexpected musical and dance techniques to provide highly theatrical performances for some years, but it is only recently that theatre seems to have embraced the same variety of media onstage with any real confidence.
The difference with Catwalk is that it was written/designed as a multi-media piece, rather than being a traditional play that has been jazzed-up with onstage techno gadgets and livelier (or at least more modern) music than usual: in fact, there's a D.J. on stage, so central is modern pop music to the action. If Catwalk shows the fringe at its most inventive, then The Powerbook triumphantly vindicates Trevor Nunn's desire to have the Transformation series of events at his temporarily transformed National Theatre represent the most modern, challenging and youthful of contemporary theatre.
An adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's cyber-space novel, directed by Deborah Warner and co-starring Fiona Shaw and Suffron Burrows, The Powerbook has been very well received by theatre critics who have been impressed by the extraordinarily multi-media nature of the play.
Set as it is in the world of e-mail, web sites and virtual reality and blending ancient myth and twenty-first century technology, this was always going to be a production where video and music would play an integral part, and the use of both has helped create the sense of strange, other worldliness that is essential to a tale of shifting sexuality, time travel and mystery.
Jonathan Kent's production of King Lear at the Almeida earlier this year also used television, with Lear's "abdication" speech done by Oliver Ford Davies as a television broadcast, with the King and his daughters being simultaneously broadcast on a battery of television screens while they spoke.
Meanwhile, Rome and Jewels at the Peacock Theatre similarly shows that the dance world continues to recognize the value of multi-media presentations to enhance performances, and with such a variety of theatres presenting this type of event, multi-media theatre is clearly an idea whose time has come.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow