Thursday 17 June 2010

'The Dramatist' by Frederick Reynolds in the RADA Bar, 16/6/10

The Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, built in 1819, is one of the few remaining Regency theatres in the country. With its thrust stage and horseshoe-shaped auditorium, it's the missing link between the Elizabethan playhouse and the Victorian proscenium arch.

Since 2005, the theatre's been running the 'Restoring the Repertoire' project, to rediscover and, where possible, perform, the plays from the period around its own construction, doing for the Georgian repertoire what the Globe does for the Elizabethan and Jacobean. On Wednesday, I went to a rehearsed reading of Frederick Reynold's 1789 play The Dramatist in the RADA bar, directed by the theatre's Associate Director, Abigail Anderson.

Like a lot of Georgian plays, The Dramatist is a comedy of intrigue, focussing on young people who want to get married and old people who want to stop them. What lifts it above the pack is the title character, Vapid, a budding playwright who both takes part in the intrigues and comments on them, analysing them in theatrical terms, and criticising other characters for their poor dramatic construction of their love affairs. His presence gives the play a giddy, self-reflective quality that makes it (to steal a line from Steve Coogan) 'post-modern before there was a modern to be post'.

In the post-show discussion, both actors - mostly RADA students - and audience wondered why plays from this period don't get revived more often. The director argued that one reason is that they depend on a close connection between actor and audience, and so don't work well in proscenium arch theatres.

It's easy to forget that, for most of its history, the theatre made no attempt to pretend that cast and audience were in different spaces. It was only the nineteenth century that split them up, under the twin influences of fourth-wall naturalism and opera, which divided stage and auditorium so as to have somewhere to put the orchestra . Later on, the coming of electricity made it much easier to light the stage while putting the audience in darkness. Rather worryingly, one of the first people to do this was Richard Wagner.

In my career as an academic, I've sometimes said that the proscenium arch is the theatrical equivalent of the missionary position - it's a bit dull, it doesn't really allow for the best contact, it involves some dubious ideological assumptions (about gender relations in one case, actor/audience in the other) but, for various reasons, it's ended up being the default option, almost the norm. It's sometimes worth questioning whether, as theatre-makers taking that option, we're fully allowing ourselves the best circumstances in which to - ahem - perform.


  1. "the proscenium arch is the theatrical equivalent of the missionary position"

    The which what now?

  2. This is a splendid blog, and I have a deep antipathy towards blogs so that's quite a compliment, coming from me.

    However, why is it so worrying that composer and all-round genius Richard Wagner was a pioneer in the use of directional electric light? It's certainly something that has changed theatre irrevocably, and for that reason when The Stage newspaper did a poll in millennium year as to who were the individuals who has most contributed to performance in the previous 1000 years I unhesitatingly included the big RW as one of my three permitted votes, but it doesn't 'worry' me in the slightest. Why does it worry you?