Saturday, 13 November 2010
Problems in Pangbourne
Many years ago, I went to the National Theatre to see Coriolanus. It was a preview, so I had no idea what to expect from the production. Unusually, I was going with friends who had taken the opportunity to book low-priced “stage seats,” with no idea what this might mean.
We arrived in our smart work clothes and were ushered onto the stage. At once our role became clear. I remember Peter declaring loudly, “I can't be mob in this tie” as he undid his tie and stuffed it in his suit pocket.
We were indeed cast as mob. From where we sat, stood or at times, were herded round the stage, we fell into the role quite easily. As Coriolanus, Ian McKellen unleashed his venomous contempt in our direction. At times we felt vulnerable, particularly when swords were unsheathed. But we were happy to join in the calls of our leaders: “The people are the city.” From where we stood or sat it seemed like a call for justice and democracy – and Coriolanus hated it.
The rest of the audience hated it too. The people in stalls and circle of the Olivier Theatre were on Coriolanus's side. Often, when you're on a stage, the emotions of the audience are palpable. It was like that then, even though we weren't really members of the cast. I felt a great wave of anger and hatred rolling towards us from the body of the auditorium. We were in a Shakespeare play, we were audience but we were getting it wrong – this play wasn't intended for the angry, demanding mob.
I was reminded of that experience as I reflected on my reaction to Amy's View at Nottingham Playhouse. I've been hesitant about describing this because the play provided so much that I want from the theatre. It was excellently acted and I don't think it could have been better directed. Everything was right from the pictures on the walls of the set to the piano music between scenes - I wish I knew what it was. It was a play by a living playwright who did his best to take women's lives seriously. At its centre were questions about culture, politics and economics.
And yet … though I laughed in all the right places, the play didn't speak to me. Most of the theatre-goers were having a lovely time. I felt like an intruder from the wrong background. I didn't belong in the posh house in Pangbourne where most of the debates took place. Had I been there, I'd have been working in the pub (offstage) or hanging out with the cleaners and gardeners who must have been employed to keep the rich people's rooms in pristine order. I started wondering where ordinary people lived and realised that, for the playwright and most of the audience, the people on stage were ordinary.
There was something odd about the on-stage discussions. The play involves long and often funny debates about the merits of theatre (good) versus film and TV (bad). It's plain which side the audience is supposed to be on. The representative of modernity is a dodgy young man who doesn't go to the theatre. He's a bastard in both the literal and metaphorical sense and this is plainly supposed undermine the views he expresses. He's also the only character on stage with a regional accent.
The young man insists theatre is dead and that the masses – or the mob – are on his side. Theatre-goers are hardly likely to agree. But at times the argument and scenario are so heavily skewed against him that I wanted to offer my support. In that setting I might even have cheered Kelvin McKenzie or Rupert Murdoch. I'd have felt I had more in common with them than the secure and unworried defenders of theatre.
Of course, worries do intrude. Since the days of Aeschylus drama has demanded reversals of fortune. But I was untouched by the characters' miseries. Certainly bad things happened to them but it was always plain that someone would provide food, home and subsistence. Even massive catastrophe doesn't mean destitution. The sort of disasters that threaten most people are a good deal worse than that.
On one level it was a good evening at the theatre, if a strangely isolating one. I always like watching good acting and laughing at well-timed jokes. But it's odd to feel alienated by a defence of live theatre, which I've loved for as long as I can remember. I wanted something wilder, more connected with a world I recognize as mine – perhaps something as angry as the plays of Peter Barnes or Edward Bond. I'd have liked excitement – the kind of confused physical and intellectual response I had to a student production of Sergeant Musgrave's Dance when the gun was trained on the audience. Perhaps a production of Blasted would have reminded me of the strengths of live theatre. I don't know. Productions of Sarah Kane have yet to reach the East Midlands.
Watching Amy's View gave me a sense of exclusion. Theatre tickets used to say on the back “The management reserves the right to refuse admission.” Sometimes, when I was young, I would worry that a theatrical management would tell me to go away because I didn't belong – that I'd dressed wrong, didn't understand the ways of theatre-goers, that theatres weren't meant for working-class children like me. Of course it never happened. By now I know I look and sound as if I belong.
The ever-hospitable staff at Nottingham Playhouse took my money, helped me choose the best available seat at the price I selected and treated me like a guest. The actors performed well in the play which David Hare wrote. It was the play itself which refused me admission.
I may be a theatre-lover but I know my place. I'm mob.