Earlier this week, Michael Billington offered his musings on what might constitute the “ideal theatre”. The article has already drawn two articulate responses from Andrew Field and Mark Shenton, with Field even starting to turn into Howard Barker (I mean that as a complement):
“...The best theatre is not created on a blank canvas. Theatre is, if anything, a renaissance fresco, graffiti, or something somewhere in between... Theatres shouldn't be the ideal forum in which to display a work of art. In their decrepitude or their opulence or their damned inappropriateness, they should fight the imposition upon them, they should challenge the use that is being made of them.”
while Shenton offers a typical thoroughgoing, statesmanlike overview of the question.
It’s an interesting question. Particularly when one has recently returned from Edinburgh and seen shows shoe-horned into every conceivable configuration, volume and sort of room imaginable – from the dank leaky caves of the Underbelly to the black-draped, polystyrene ceiled office spaces of the Pleasance Dome.
Billington, Field and Shenton all hit on something, but it is rather like the three blind men describing an elephant. Essentially, they each reveal what they most love about theatre through their descriptions of its ideal location.
What each seems to ignore is the need for a play to fit its playing space. Yes, Andrew’s argument for a kind of creative tension between space and play is brilliant. But I’d be wary of applying it as a formula across the board. It is a recipe for a particular form of radicalism – and a damn good one, recalling Gang of Four’s preferred self description of their musical style. It is no way to treat a revival of Private Lives, though (well, it could be, and I’d love to see it done – but not exclusively).
What is more crucial than any specific dimensions or configuration is simply that a play works in the space. I don’t have any particular prejudices in terms of theatrical configurations. After a few years of post-student pros. arch snobbery, I have mellowed to a point where I’m quite happy to watch theatre end-on, in thrust, in traverse, under a pros. arch, in-the-round or en promenade. What annoys me is when a director utterly fails to take the space into account when creating the production. One of the (millions of) thrilling things about Katie Mitchell’s production of Attempts on Her Life was the way that it felt like a site-specific piece that happened to be sited in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the stage used better. The best productions in any theatre make you experience the actual space completely anew. The space doesn’t have to be perfect (or imperfect), but the best productions will understand it perfectly. [See also: any number of articles/thoughts about transfer difficulties where a production seems to almost break completely in transit]
An issue which has been interesting me recently that follows on (loosely) from this is that of audiences. It came up for me recently as I was watching The Emperor Jones in a Thursday matinee performance at the National, with the Guardian blog article arguing that the play was a racist disgrace rattling around at the forefront of my thinking. As a consequence, I was thinking much more about “race” than I ever normally do. Thus I become acutely aware that I was sitting in a virtually all-white audience - a reasonably thorough look around at the end revealed two black women, one Asian woman and a white girl with dreads out of a nearly-full house. I was also in a minority of about a dozen or so under retirement age. So, all the way through this potentially racist play, I was acutely aware of this older, white audience and was almost making mental notes of the places they laughed – mentally interrogating their responses in a particularly specific way. It was a very odd experience. I don’t recommend it.
This reminded me of perhaps my least favourite evening ever spent in a theatre: in 2000, just after I’d started reviewing for CultureWars in London, a play about pole-dancers opened at the Riverside Studios starring Kelly Brook. Due to the massive amount of pre-publicity this bit of celebrity casting had managed to score the play, it seemed only reasonable that we should cover it. Being the theatre critic I duly called the press office and arranged a ticket. The day I was going to see it (I think the night after press night) The Sun published an enormous photo from the play of Kelly Brook pole-dancing on their front page, with further shots inside of the actress topless (also from the play). As a consequence, I grimly trooped over to Hammersmith feeling as if I ought to be wearing a grubby mac and furtive expression. Anyway, the reason this was perhaps my least favourite evening ever spent in a theatre had very little to do with the play (although I wasn’t a big fan) and a lot more to do with my fellow audience members. The audience that night was almost exclusively male and overhung with an almost tangible air of testosterone heavy and half-concealed sexual menace. I’ve never been to a play which had bouncers on the door (and if I remember rightly, unobtrusively onstage throughout) before. I’m not sure I’ve ever sat in a room with so many Sun readers before or since, either. I’m acutely aware that this all sounds like a particularly nasty sort of prim, puritanical snobbery. So be it. There was even a point when I wondered to myself if I went to the theatre partially to avoid these exact people with whom I was now seated.
As a further aside, ironically, I was discussing this issue of how audiences affect one’s experience of a given play with that very show’s director the other night (we met in Edinburgh the following year, and in a fit of spectacular, drunken gaucheness, I banged on about how much I had disliked play at some length, leading to a lengthy full and frank discussion on the topics raised). She had recently been to see Cabaret, and had been somewhere between bemused and horrified that the conclusion of If You Could See Her - where the Emcee pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet with an ironical, anti-Semitic conclusion – actually raised a (unintended) laugh. Later, this same audience, who clearly weren’t thinking very hard, burst into rapturous applause the split second the lights went down at the end of the play. Fine, you might think, except that the final moments of Rufus Norris’s current production aren’t intended to whip up a crowd-pleasing finale, but rather to point ahead to the horrors which were to follow in Hitler’s Germany. With the net effect that wildly applauding the moment the curtain comes down looks insensitive at best and, well, fascistic at worse.
Fellow audience members often have the power to shape one’s experience of a play just as vividly if not much more so than a building. Not least because one is always at least dimly aware that as well as you being able to hear and see them, so – often – are the actors [-fill in your own favourite mobile phone/actor interface anecdote here]. If nothing else, this is a powerful reminder of just how live a medium theatre really is. And how ultimately little its outward trappings can matter in comparison to the actual marrow of the experience.