Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Stage

Simon Heffer, a cultural columnist for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, recently wrote this: “All of us have cultural blind spots, and mine is the theatre...I have never been able to understand why I have this difficulty. I am almost obsessed with films, so it is not the idea of drama, or of actors, that holds me back. Perhaps it is that watching a film, or a play on television, puts what is for me an essential distance between the drama and the audience. When I have been to the theatre – which is less and less as I get older – my first reaction, whatever I am watching, is to find it absurd. I cannot suspend disbelief, which is something one does not need to do when watching a film: one is not in the same physical space as the actors. I also find it rather bizarre to be in a confined space with hundreds of other people who can suspend their disbelief, as the only one who can’t. I am not proud of this limitation. But it is how things are.”

Suspending disbelief

I might have said something similar at one time – five or ten years went by without my going to live theatre. But that ended some twenty years ago, and since then it’s been a crucial part of my agenda – I perhaps go once a month or so on average. Heffer’s reservations are far removed then from my own perspective, but funnily enough, they provide a way of explaining why I think theatre appeals to me so much. I can’t suspend disbelief either – but that seems to me the point. It’s not that you sit within a few feet of two actors and in any sense “believe” their conversation to be taking place, say, half a continent away and half a century ago. If it works (and through the craftsmanship of all involved, it usually does), you do indeed see and sense a space where none exists, but you oscillate between immersion in this imagined reality and a delight in the intertwined processes that power this imagination. In simpler terms, if you suspended disbelief you wouldn’t be alive to the acting as acting, to the subtleties of writing and staging and lighting. Appreciating theatre demands not suspending your disbelief, but rather productively investing it.

I don’t see cinema in quite the same way as Heffer either. Certainly, it’s easy to be seduced by the seamless flow of narrative cinema; not solely through the physical distance from the actors (I suspect Heffer gets very nervous when someone stands too close to him on the bus) but through the deployment of editing and montage and other tools to position you in its constructed reality. But while that can provide a great way of killing two hours, I don’t think it sums up the best of cinema. Indeed, the ease of surrendering your faculties, of just being carried along, can serve as a trap, ensuring that we’re willing suckers for whatever glitzy contraption the Hollywood machine is dangling before us this weekend. Cinema inherently has that “essential distance” from us, but the best films demand that we use our own sensitivity and intellect and morality to partly close that gap; the more it closes, you might say in general terms, the more profound the thrill.

Around a Small Mountain

Some directors use theatre as a recurring subject in their films, most prominently Jacques Rivette, one of my all-time favourites. When I wrote about Celine and Julie Go Boating here last year, I said the film “critiques the conventions that restrict cinema, and that therefore restrict all of us who value it” – in contrast, his films have frequently referred to theatre as a source of relative freedom. Since then I’ve seen Rivette’s most recent film Around a Small Mountain, now out on DVD - with the director now in his late 80’s, they say it may be his last work. A beautiful, conscious-enhancing miniature, it’s about a modern-day traveling circus of sorts; a stranger suspends his trans-Europe car journey to revisit the show from night to night and to engage with the performers, focusing in particular on the past trauma that continues to weigh on one of them - in the end, the circus ring itself provides the means of resolving her issues. Rivette’s adoration of cinema seems clearer than ever – he ends for instance on a ravishing shot of the landscape – and yet the film warns against that danger I mentioned, of benign passivity in the face of polished but hermetic creativity. The use of a circus, of course, suggests that perhaps this involves no more than reclaiming what we knew as children.

And then last week I went to the hottest current show in Toronto, Billy Elliot, widely regarded as one of the best of recent musicals. I’d already seen the show in London a few years ago, and recall being impressed by its showmanship, particularly in the contrast between a very muscular portrayal of the showdown between striking miners and the police, and the delicacy of the young boy who finds his creative soul within all of this. The Toronto production is a bit wan by comparison. The boys playing Billy are customarily acclaimed, but the individual on the night I attended (three of them rotate the role) seemed much more a technician than an actor, letting much of the role’s emotion fritter away. The miserable plight of the miners inevitably carries less charge at this distance, and that’s even if the play didn’t sweep all seriousness away with a rather ludicrously feel-good finale. Oh, I found it easy to suspend disbelief – I believed completely I was watching something taking place on Mars.

The Fantasticks

Billy Elliot is often most striking at its simplest, when it needs no more than a chair and a dance and some artful lighting: at regular intervals though, it resorts to the almost tiresome if foolproof device of filling the stage full of people singing something suitably anthemic. I much preferred Soulpepper’s current production of The Fantasticks, which has only a handful of performers and virtually no props or scenery, but at various times bewitches you into perceiving a wall that isn’t there, or into seeing a ladder as a tree, or in accepting you might look out from that tree and attain near-cosmic vision; even better, it ultimately taps much more complex emotions than initially seems likely. Now that’s the kind of theatre I’m talking about. And where Billy Elliot has a full-blown orchestra, The Fantasticks has just a pianist and a harpist, both in full view at the side of the stage. I was sitting at the front, and at one point (during “I Can See It”) I was so mesmerized by the pianist’s hands that my attention wandered from the stage for a long while. I couldn’t have been any happier, not even if my disbelief had been categorically suspended.

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