Tuesday 28 October 2014

Okay, Here's 10 Audiences I Have Known

This is a sort of cover version of/response to Dan Rebellato's recent blog 10 Audiences I Have Known, describing ten theatre audiences he's been part of over the years.   If you haven't read his piece, do so now.

1.  The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens/David Edgar, Aldwych Theatre, London, 1980.

For me, as for a lot of people my age, Nicholas Nickleby was the show that made me want to work in theatre.  Two plays, each about four hours long, putting a whole society on stage, with a cast that sums up a generation of RSC acting - Roger Rees, David Threlfall, John Woodvine, Edward Petherbridge, Ben Kingsley, Bob Peck, Timothy Spall, Suzanne Bertish - and proving that Charles Dickens was, as Trevor Nunn said, 'the greatest playwright who never wrote a play' (actually, he did, but his plays are far less theatrical than his novels).  Pretty much everything I've done in the theatre since then, as director, writer or teacher, has been partly an attempt to recreate the sense of ensemble and community in those shows.

The moment that sums up the piece, and what it did, came towards the end of the first act of the first play.  Nicholas, our hero (Rees), is working as a schoolmaster at the Yorkshire school run by Wackford Squeers (Kingsley), a dumping ground for unwanted sons.  The underfed, disturbed boy Smike (a pre-Shameless Threllfall) has tried to escape, and is due to be beaten by Squeers.  Nicholas watches for as long as he can stand it, then intervenes, grabs Squeers' cane, and beats the schoolmaster.

And the audience cheers like mad.

A metropolitan audience doesn't cheer or boo easily, and when it does, it's usually with a knowing post-modern wink, as when Globe audiences used to boo the French in Henry V, presumably casting themselves as Shakespeare's audience.   This was something different - a genuine moral approval, an acknowledgement that Nicholas had, in defending the helpless Smike, done the right thing.   It remains one of the very few times I've ever heard a sincere, non-ironic moral response in a theatre, and, at the beginning of what we now know to be the Thatcher era, it seemed like a very neceessary thing to hear.

2. The Lover, Harold Pinter, Sewell Barn Theatre, Norwich, 1985.

The Sewell Barn was (and is) an ambitious amateur theatre in Norwich, where I went to university.  The piece was a stage adaptation of Harold Pinter's television play.  Around the middle of the show, the female lead is pouring out tea for her lover, Max.  He picks up a pair of bongos and starts to play, which leads to the two of them playing out a seduction scene, which climaxes (ahem) with the two of them crawling under the tablecloth, and her crying out 'MAX!'.  Blackout.

When the lights come up, the two of them have emerged from under the cloth, and are both drinking a cup of (presumably) post-coital tea.  The woman sitting next to me turns to her companion and says 'It'll have gone cold by now.'.

3. Entertaining Strangers, David Edgar, Cottesloe Theatre, London, 1987.

Another David Edgar play.  So sue me.

Entertaining Strangers was written as a community play for the people of Dorchester in Dorset, one of the massive projects initiated by the playwright Anne Jellicoe.  The year after the premiere, Edgar rewote it for the National Theatre, where it was directed by Peter Hall, in a promenade production with a cast that included Judi Dench and Tim Piggot-Smith.

The evening I saw happened to be the performance to which the National had invited the people of Dorchester, including many of those who'd been in the original production.  The Mayor of the town was there, wearing his chain of office, together with David Edgar and Neil Kinnock (one of the small group of politicians I've seen at the theatre - Kenneth Baker seems to be the most frequent attender).

In the interval I heard one Dorchestian saying 'I think they're doing it very well.'.  At the end, a woman said, in mock (but maybe not) indignation 'Well, whatever happened to..?.'  and named a character, presumably the one she'd played.  The thing that struck me was that, as far as they were concerned, their production was the definitive one and this, by their country's National Theatre, a mere shadow on the Platonic wall.  And, thinking about it, I suppose they were right.

4. Henry V, William Shakespeare, New Theatre, Cardiff, 1988.

In the late 'eighties, Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington formed the English Shakespeare Company, an ensemble designed to challenge the supremacy of the RSC.  Their first project was a three part version of the two Henry IV plays and Henry V - a year later they expanded it to include the whole History cycle.  The plays toured nationally and internationally, allowing an audience the chance to watch the whole lot over a week, starting with Richard II on Tuesday and finishing on Bosworth Field on Saturday night.  The company never did anything nearly as good, and became known as a one-hit wonder, insofar as it's reasonable to call a seven-play cycle 'one hit'.

Henry V is sometimes described as a theatrical equivalent of the duck/rabbit optical illusion, a play that can be read as both as pro-war and anti-war (though not at the same time) depending on how you look at it.  If Laurence Olivier's film gave us the full duck, Bogdanov served up a the most rampant of rabbits, playing up the questionable nature of Henry's claim, his status as a war criminal, and the brutal realpolitick of the final negociations with France.

As with Nicholas Nickleby, there was a defining moment in the crossover between Act II Scene 2 and 3. The low-life characters, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, are going to war.  Pistol bids a tearful farewell to his new wife, Mistress Quickly, as a guitar plays 'My Way' in the background.  As she leaves, the farewell song morphs into 'Here we go' and the English army become a crowd of football hooligans, complete with scraves and klaxons; some carry a banner that reads 'Fuck the Frogs', the Chorus appears with a sign that reads 'Gotcha!'.

As the English army withdraws, we see the French court, in a peaceful Arcadian scene, carrying champagne galsses and wearing white suits and dresses, as if at a picnic.  The final English hooligan exits and the French King (the late Clyde Pollitt, who'd already played John of Gaunt and Justice Shallow in the previous plays) says his first line:

'Thus come the English.'

It was a beautifully modulated gag, and I'm sure got a laugh everywhere. In anglophobic Cardiff, it brought the house down.

Growing up in London, I'd never really given much thought to the way in which different parts of the country might receive a piece of theatre, that there were regional reactions as well as national ones. Shakespeare's Histories, with their heterogenous world-view, and focus on civil war, taught me a lesson.  (The video version of the production, filmed at the Grand Theatre, Swansea, preserves this  audience reaction.)

5. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov, New Theatre, Cardiff, 1991.

Same theatre, a few years later.  Kenneth Branagh's production, with Richard Briers as Vanya.  In the interval, a group of people wearing Open University badges are standing in front of me in the ice-cream queue.  They stand in silence for a while, then the man nearest to me says:

'Of course, falling asleep's not necessarily a criticism...'

6. Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine,  Phoenix Theatre, London, 1990.

This was the British premiere of Sondheim's musical, three years after its Broadway debut.  At the end of the show, I overheard the elderly gent next to me saying:

'They don't make 'em like that anymore!'

I'm still not sure what he was doing - was he just uttering a complimentary phrase without thinking about what it meant?  Was he commenting on the decline of the musical theatre since 1987?  Or did he genuinely believe that he'd been watching a show from another era, a golden age?  And if so, when?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as omnivores, who can watch (or read, or listen to) anything, without being influenced by its period and provenance.  Of course we're not; part of our perception of a work of art is created by our sense of how near or far it is from us, in terms of time and place, and where we can put it in relation to other works.  Some of the original audiences of The Boy Friend reportedly thought that it was a revival of a '20s musical, rather than a skilful pastiche/distillation; converesely, I'm sure that many people watch modern translations of classic plays (David Harrower's version of Ibsen's Public Enemy, for instance) without knowing that the original play is over a century old (and more power to them, I say). 

Does it make a difference?  Of course.  How?  No idea.  And I'd still love to know what that man thought he was watching.

7.  Oleanna, David Mamet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1993.

This is the one production that's also on Dan Rebellato's list.  I saw it a little earlier in the run, at the Royal Court rather than in the West End.  Maybe for that reason, the audience was quieter than the one he describes, with not even a hint of cheering.  In the interval, after watching David Suchet's impossibly smug academic for an hour, I was standing in the Gents next to another man.  We didn't know each other, but the play seemed to demand a response.

Him:  Got it coming, hasn't he?
Me:   And I imagine he's going to get it.

We finished up, and went back to our seats, where Suchet's character did indeed get what was coming to him.

Till that point, I'd always been opposed to intervals, unnecessary breaks in the tension, making a director's job harder than it already was.  That was the first time I'd ever experienced an interval as an actual building of tension.  As Marsha Norman says ' the play is also what is not said, what lies under the lines, and what the audience imagines during intermission.'.We were like the spectators at a sporting event (it's not a coincidence that the set resembled a boxing ring) waiting to see the characters laying into each other, and wanting blood.

8.  Love's Labour's Lost, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Globe,  London, 2012.

I've written in other posts about the 2012 Globe to Globe season, all of Shakespeare's plays plus Venus and Adonis, each one performed in a different language (stretching the point a bit in some cases).  As I observed at the time, one of the glories of the season was the audience, as multi-culti London emerged for individual shows - the Urdu Taming of the Shrew, featuring Lollywood star Nadil Jamel as Kate, was especially moving in this respect, starting with the Pakistan National Anthem and a senior member of the company giving a speech (in English) thanking the Globe for inviting them to play 'in this theatre, which is sacred to all actors'. 

Love's Labour's Lost was played in British Sign Language, by the company Deafinitely Theatre (showing commendable chutzpah, they took on the most verbal play in the language).  There's a lot to say about the eloquence of signing as a language, and many have said it better than I can.  Some moments still stick in my mind - the four Lords, at the end of the first half, gradually lowering the hands from their hearts, relinquishing the sign for 'oath' as they resolved to break theirs.  Watching Don Armado's Hispanic flourishes was also the first time I realised - and it seems so obvious in retrospect that I'm embarrassed to say it - that people sign in different accents.

In the Globe courtyard, I got chatting to my neighbour, who turned out to be a gay rights activist from Dublin ('Best of luck' seemed the only appropriate response.).  He'd learned to sign when he had a relationship with a deaf man (male homosexuality is far more common in the Deaf community than others - he said that nobody really knows why).  He told me of learning to sign, and being complimented by a mutual friend on the quality of his signing after the conversation in which he and his partner had broken up.

As a theatre-goer, I've often seen shows in other languages, or aimed at audiences of which I'm not a part.  I've been the most heterosexual person at a drag show and the only goy in the village at Hampstead.  I've been the only white person in all-Caribbean audience, feeling like a ping-pong ball in a  bucket of caviar.  In my early forties, I once had the experience of being the youngest person in the audience, by about twenty years,  and the next afternoon, of being the oldest, by about the same margin.  But Love's Labour's Lost was the show, more than any other, where I was conscious of being, although welcome, a tourist in someone's else's world.

9. Mr Burns, Anne Washburn, Almeida Theatre, London, 2014. and

Mr Burns, which brought out rave reviews and virulent hatred in roughly equal measure, is a dystopian fantasy, set in a world where The Simpsons has become folklore.  The three acts are set several years aprt, as the stories get further from their original form, ending with an operatic version of the episode 'Cape Feare'.  Once you've got the basic concept, it's a very enjoyable show, although it helps if you know your Simpsons.  Before you grasp that, it can be a bit tricky, as evidenced by what was (to me at least) a new phenomenon; audience members googling the show on their phones in the interval, to make sure they were following the plot.

10. Flowers of the Field, Kevin Mandry, White Bear Theatre, London, 2014.

Dan included a play he'd written, so I'm going to mention one I directed.  By definition, fringe theatre audiences are more variable from evening to evening than those in larger theatres - a single large party can alter the demographic in ways that you don't expect.

Flowers of the Field was a beautifully-written play about a folk song collector, a sort of fictionalised version of someone like Cecil Sharp, in 1916.  it tended to play to an older audience, one that knew about folk music and/or the First World War, in which the hero had served.  Except for one evening, when an enterprising lecturer from a summer school brought along a group of American students.  It was the youngest audience we ever played to, and one of the best.  Laughs came in different places, the romantic plot suddenly became central, and one girl gasped 'No!' audibly at the final twist.  A couple of audience members walked off with the pre-decimal coins that we'd used as set dressing, and I don't resent the loss one little bit.

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