At the weekend, I spent the day in a darkened theatre watching the James trilogy, a set of plays based on the lives of the the Scottish Kings ruling in the 14th Century.
Talking to members of the audience during the three different intervals and the longer spells between each of the plays, feelings towards the trilogy were mixed. Some were thoroughly enjoying it while those that were not mainly used the word ‘banal’. I am not an expert theatre critic, and I admit that the dialogue itself was nothing special, however it was certainly a theatrical experience and one that I am still thinking about today, so I take that as a good sign. All the actors were in good form, and demonstrated an amazing level of energy to keep going throughout the day, though my favourite was Sofia Grobel. She had real presence on stage. In my book it was worth the money, especially doing the three in the row as you were able to make connections between them that would have been lost if you only saw one.
During one of the breaks, I got to thinking about how much I love a visit to a theatre. I’ve been visiting theatres since I was a child and it was always a special treat. There would be dinner or a special picnic beforehand, you got to wear a pretty outfit and then there was the excitement of the lights dimming and the music starting. I still love that sense of anticipation in the five minutes before a show or an opera starting, especially one that you have really been looking forward to see. Nowadays the current fashion for productions is to start the action before the technical start time, with actors pretending to talk to one another and sometimes even directly involving the audience. This happened when I saw the RSCs production of ‘Two Gentleman of Verona’.
The stage was set up as an Italian campo or piazza, complete with restaurant seating. As the audience arrived, actors were on stage pretending to eat, drink and socialise, and at some points, lucky people in the stalls were being invited to come on stage and eat ice cream! It certainly created a convivial atmosphere before the actual play started.
The other device that contemporary productions are using at the moment, is to have some of the audience actually sitting on stage, facing out at the main auditorium. This happened in the James plays and is also the case in ‘Richard III’ currently being shown in London.
Having seen what the audience members were subjected to in Richard III, and I won’t spoil it for you, just in case you see the production yourself, it would certainly not be my ideal place to sit. It seems however that the professionals have decided that a visit to the theatre should no longer be a passive experience for the audience. These days the audience become part of the play, fully immersed in the story. I have seen six theatrical productions by top-class companies this summer, and every time I have been completely caught up in the experience and I have loved it. Every time I take my place in my row and open the programme the excitement of the child of many years ago resurfaces and I am completely transported. I escape the real world for a blissful couple of hours and all I have to do is sit and watch and listen. That is why the Arts are so necessary in people’s lives.