Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Upstart Crow Meets London Theatre Halfway

“We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!”
-The Player, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

As of this writing I’ve been in London for a little under a week and a half. I’ve experienced a great many things that I can’t begin to cram into one post and still maintain a coherent focus. In the future I’m going to try (Keyword: try) to make a few short posts throughout the week and then a longer, more focused one at the end so all five of you who read this thing can get a more complete picture rather than just the broad strokes of this experience.

That said, this week I’ve decided to talk about the theatre I’ve seen thus far on the trip. Part of the study abroad program I’m participating in involves seeing productions all over the city. Thus far, we’ve seen three: The Illusion at the Southwark Playhouse, As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Brand New Ancients at the Battersea Arts Center.

The most striking thing I’ve observed so far concerning British theatre as it compares to its American counterpart is the way the British treat the audience. In class at The Globe on Tuesday, we had a question and answer session with Bill Barclay, the theatre’s Music Manager, who also happens to be the only American on staff there. During the session he mentioned that the biggest difference he’s seen between British and American actors is that American acting tends to be concerned with being as realistic as possible, trying to actually feel the emotions of the character, and, in kind, giving that emotion over to the audience on a silver platter. The British, on the other hand, expect their audience to meet them halfway. They don’t try to play the realism to the hilt the way Americans do. I found this idea very interesting and, though this observation is definitely a generalization, the works I’ve seen here so far have definitely demanded a great deal more on the part of the audience, if not in acting style, then definitely in their themes and presentation.

The Real Illusion is the Theatre Entrance

We saw The Illusion at the end of our first week of classes here. Our last class of the day was at The Globe, which is quite close to the Southwark Playhouse. However, we were warned to not overestimate the time we had between the end of class and the start of the show, as the entrance to the theatre was not immediately obvious.

This was a gross understatement.

We passed the theatre entrance at least three times before we saw it.

The theatre, which is housed in the repurposed vaults below the London Bridge rail station, is accessed through a modest set of wrought iron gates with a sign on them (I’m given to understand that this lights up at night, but it wasn’t nearly dark enough yet) that sit in the back of the beer garden of one of the most ostentatious pubs I’ve seen since arriving. Between its bright blue painted exterior and the mass of businessmen at the end of their workday, the only way we discovered this inauspicious entryway was by looking very carefully at the street address.

Once it’s been located however, the interior is quite cool. Much of the existing structure has been maintained from its days as a rail station, meaning that the lobby and bar is done out in brickwork with high, arched ceilings. The lighting is subdued and intimate and the low tables and large, soft couches lend the bar an almost Bohemian air. Not to mention that the cost of a pint was surprisingly low for a theatre bar, though, if memory serves, they only have two or three beers on tap, so there’s a bit of a caveat there.

The Illusion is a translation/adaptation of a 17th century French comedy by Tony Kushner (Most famous as the writer of the two-part epic that is Angels in America). Though nowhere near as dark or grandiose as Angels, it shares its love of poetic dialogue and fantastical elements. An aging lawyer visits a sorceress, asking her to show him what has become of his estranged son. She does so through a series of constantly shifting illusions on which they comment in the manner of a theatre audience. Indeed, as the play progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the play is not about the literal action, but about the manner in which we understand and participate in the theatrical experience.

Though this is an American play, it did not achieve a great deal of success in the United States. It predates Angels in America, and thus received only a short run in New York in the 1980s and only the occasional regional production since then. Indeed, this production marks its UK debut, almost 30 years after its initial iteration. I think the latency of its success is because, despite its American origin, it is not as literal or straightforward as is the norm for mainstream American theatre. In general, thematically speaking, an American play is expected to be entertaining on the merits of its own plot. If it incites intellectual discourse and activity in the audience, that is an excellent added bonus, but this is not understood as being good enough on its own. In this case, however, the mental side is the point of the thing. The plot is less a string of cause and effect and more a puzzle for the audience to solve. This is not to deride its entertainment value. The play is wildly entertaining. However, it’s not a “sit-back-and-let-it-happen-to-you” kind of entertainment. It’s a “let’s-try-to-figure-out-what’s-going-on-and-then-compare-notes-with-our-friends-after-the-show” kind of entertainment.

Globe-al Studies

This past Tuesday was our first show at The Globe, As You Like It. I’m going to do my best to stick to the point I’m trying to make with this post, as I can (and have) yammer about Shakespeare for pages and pages and pages.

The theatre is beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. One of the few things Shakespeare in Love was completely accurate about was the interior of an Elizabethan theatre, which is what The Globe is meant to replicate. The intricate woodcarvings and detail work are unlike what you’re likely to see in a theatre anywhere else in the world. I’ll leave it at that, as I plan on doing an entry about my Globe experiences a bit later in the term.

As for the play itself, one of the striking things is the manner in which The Globe presents Shakespeare, at least this particular comedy to the audience. In the States we have a tendency to not muck about much with the text. Setting and time period, sure, but if someone’s going to talk, they’d better be doing so in iambic pentameter. Not so here. The clowns on several occasions felt free to break character if the moment warranted it. For instance, a scene involving the successful catching of a bouquet thrown from an elevated platform to an actor standing stage level prompted the catcher to comment, “That’s a first.” Whether this was truly improvised or not, it is not the sort of thing I’ve seen in American Shakespeare, or in fact most American theatre at this level. It’s not only refreshing, but also quite appropriate to the text. The so-called “Fourth wall” between the characters in a play and the audience wasn’t fully established until the rise of Realism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tearing it down is another way of engaging the audience and discouraging passive theatergoing, which I think speaks to the heart of the difference between American and British theatre styles, at least based on what I’ve seen.

Epic Poetry is Not Dead

Thus we come to Brand New Ancients. I saw this literally right before sitting down to write this entry, so the memory is quite a bit fresher for this one. As with As You Like It, I’ll try not to rant too much.

Brand New Ancients can’t quite be called a play. In modern terms, it’s something between a poetry slam and a one-woman show. In more precise, historical terms, it’s the 21st century successor to the oral tradition of Homer that gave us The Odyssey and The Illiad. Kate Tempest, the playwright and performer, tells entirely in verse, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, sometimes rapped, the saga of two half brothers growing up in modern London framed as a latter day heroic epic in which, to paraphrase the piece itself, the gods have forgotten they are gods.

This would never have been produced in America. At least not at a level above regional fringe or Off-Off Broadway. It is gorgeous in its language and themes and Tempest is unbelievably dynamic in her performance, however your average New York theatre audience would never go to see it. It is challenging, painful, heavy, sardonic, and utterly beautiful. However, the long and short of it is that there is nothing to it other than a woman with a microphone, four musicians acting as a back-up band, and some very interesting minimalist light design. The commercial theatre in America is, for the most part, built on spectacle and novelty. However, this work offers no falling chandelier, no celebrity stars (Unless one counts a memorable passage involving the lambasting of Simon Cowell as a false idol), and no brand recognition. The novelty in Brand New Ancients is, again, the way it challenges the audience. Tempest’s work encourages the audience to meet her halfway in her examination of urban violence and emotional turmoil as a parallel to Ancient mythology. It’s an exercise on the part of both the performer and the audience in both emotion and intellect, not just aesthetics. And it pays off. Standing ovations are not de rigueur in the UK the way they are in the US. This was the only thing I’ve seen so far that got even a partial one.

So, what do we take away from this? I don’t think it’s that UK audiences are necessarily smarter than US audiences, I think it’s more that the people who make theatre here are more willing to trust their audiences to engage with them on a more than aesthetic level, allowing a more unique product to emerge.

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