Saturday, 13 September 2008
The watchers and the watched
It began as a lecture - about psychology. Against the backdrop of a clinic the doctor and his assistant introduced themselves and then, with smug authority, brought on their patient, pyjama-clad and shambling.
Of course, we knew it was a play. This was Nottingham Playhouse. We had tickets for Vertigo - not the Hitchcock film but the French novel on which it was based, adapted for the stage by Jonathan Holloway. Butfrom the start our role as audience was uneasy - we were spectators of a disturbed man who seemed unaware of our presence.
Gradually we were absorbed into the story ... then, from time to time, jolted out of it. Ben Keaton, as Roger the patient, moved from semi-consciousness into apparent alertness as he enacted his past. But in all this he was under hypnosis - paraded before us by the doctor treating him. For most of the first act he remained in pyjamas while appearing suave and confident; the doctor and nurse moved in and out of other roles - to show us how things were. At times the doctor would return his patient to sleep so that he could underline a point for us, the viewers.
It's a tale of fear and obsession that begins in Paris in 1940. German troops threaten inavsion. Roger's outward confidence masks guilt and uncertainty; he's an ex-policeman whose fear of heights led to the death of a colleague. He takes on the job of following Medeleine, the delicate young wife of a rich older man. First he just watches and begins to idealise her. Then he finds himself forced into an action which makes her acknowledge his presence. As he spends more time with Madeleine, Roger's obsession deepens. Who is exerting power, the doctor asks us, the watcher or the watched?
The story twists unexpectedly, leaps past the Occupation and introduces an uneasy post-war France. Sympathies switch. We remain uneasy as watchers but we remain transfixed because there is so much we need to know.
I don't want to give away the plot. We went to the first preview. The press night is next Tuesday. But it's gripping theatre - and as sinister and shocking as any film noir. From my second-row seat I felt like a voyeur - failing to intervene because I wanted to know how the story would end.
I saw the play with my teenage children - a last family outing before my daughter departs for university. I'm glad to see that Nottingham Playhouse still has the cheap tickets and special offers that make a family outing possible. The Playhouse wasn't quite full but the audience was rapt and thrilled. And I'm glad to report that my daughter - an enthusiastic theatre-goer - reckons it one of the best productions she's ever seen.
Note: The play is a reworking of a touring production by Red Shift. I note that the smaller production reached the Wyeside in Builth Wells earlier this year, giving audiences in Powys a chance to see outstanding theatre. It's a shame that the long-term future of the Wyeside - an outstanding small arts centre - remains uncertain. I hope the campaign to save the Wyeside secures its long-term future.