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Scenes From A Life

In the early 1930s my father and stepmother set up a theatre in Bolton. Built on a former graveyard next to the Hanover Street gasworks, it was one of the chain of “Little Theatres” that formed the backbone of pre-war English amateur drama and it was here, in 1937, at the age of seven, that I saw my first show—“Fifinella”, a children’s play by the multimedia mogul Basil Dean. It began with two ladies in bearskins guarding the palace gates, but hardly had they sloped halberds than my cousin Robin and a girl two seats away started whispering about the performance. They were saying it was rubbish. They then said so again more loudly, and when people began shushing them they got up and barged their way to the end of the row, then down the aisle and onto the stage, at which point the penny finally dropped that they were part of the entertainment.

That was my first taste of how the theatre works. You could film Robin’s trick, but the result would be stone dead compared with the physical thrill of being there and tasting the disruption. Although I couldn’t have explained this at the time, I understood that as soon as the dramatic pretence begins, it generates a force field that becomes as tangible as barbed wire if anyone tries to walk through it.

I remember that moment perfectly, but have long forgotten what happened after it. Much the same goes for my memory of 40-odd years of theatre reviewing, which left the impression that most productions chug along on the safe old rails, but from time to time something happens, like the dazzling reflection from a cat’s eyes, that opens up the inner workings of the stage. Whether it’s a good idea for the public to pry into these secrets is a matter of dispute. But for me, the matter was settled from the moment of witnessing the collapse of the palace guard, and I have been on the lookout for “Fifinella” moments ever since.

As a teenager in the 1940s I was well placed to find them. Nearby Manchester was a prime touring date, and even the Bolton Grand attracted big names like Edith Evans. My father and his wife Norma both had freelance acting jobs at the BBC’s Manchester studios. One of their BBC acquaintances, who sometimes stayed at our house, was a documentary-maker, Joan Littlewood, who was said to do a bit of theatre on the side. When she was there they used to have spirited late-night discussions about the commedia dell’arte (whatever that was), and when she’d gone they were apt to chortle over the double entendres in her countryside commentaries (“with a sigh of relief, I grasped the end of his shepherd’s crook”) and mock her eccentric theatrical taste. They both believed in the primacy of the voice, and so far as radio was concerned it was easy to agree with that. Beyond radio, though, it meant that star actors were divinely appointed to rule the roost. Littlewood, it seemed, had other ideas.

One night during the war they took me along to a show of hers at the Miners’ Hall. The piece, by Littlewood’s partner, the folk singer Ewan MacColl, was “Johnny Noble”, a heroic fable of the war at sea, showing a merchant convoy under attack from German U-boats. There was a cast of six, and the set consisted of a piece of rope. MacColl and Littlewood, spotlit in matching black raincoats, delivered a bardic commentary on the action from either flank. Between them, in near darkness, the rope was strung with port and starboard lights that heaved and dipped with the rhythm of the waves. It made me seasick to look at. Then the bombardment began, and the crew went into combat with a Bofors gun—which consisted of four actors, three of them playing the gun with full recoil mechanism and the fourth loading and firing. It was unutterably thrilling. I had never imagined the possibility of such a thing, and the illusion was total. At the same time, I remained fully aware of sitting in this seedy hall watching some actors tying themselves up in knots. My parents admired the lighting, but thought the show coarsely propagandist. For me it triggered the idea that theatre consists of two simultaneous realities—the reality of the actor’s performance and the reality of the spectator’s presence in his seat—with attention continually switching from one to the other.

This was one of Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop touring productions before the company moved to Stratford East, discovered Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and created “Oh, What a Lovely War!”. On the road it specialised in fiercely drilled physical exercises that vanished in later years; and my parents were right about the lighting which, I later discovered, was the work of a former plumber, Alf Armitt, who had taught himself German so as to read Appia’s “Die Musik und die Inszenierung”, then apprenticed himself to an optical-lens grinder and equipped Littlewood’s penniless troupe with a revolutionary lighting system. In that department, Theatre Workshop qualified as an object of my stepmother Norma’s lifelong pursuit of “the best”—be it sausages, dentists, chilblain cures, undertakers or star actors.

We often quarrelled about it, though not when she took me off to the Manchester Opera House to see Olivier’s “Richard III” in 1945. I had no idea of what to expect when an ungainly figure with a long nose limped down to the edge of the stage and stood looking at us, turned and limped back upstage to lock the door, came down again and only then rasped the opening line, somewhat in the style of Mr Punch, confident that he was speaking in abso-lute conspiratorial privacy to 1,500 strangers. This was manifestly the best.

It turned the force-field rule inside out. Instead of erecting an invisible barrier between the stage and the auditorium, the theatre became one room so that Richard could seduce everyone in the house before putting his wicked plans into practice. With that alliance sealed, the stage snapped back into default position; and once we had served his purpose, Richard dropped us as he was to drop so many other helpers, leaving us to watch his high-wire crimes as gawping outsiders like the election crowd in the play. Unlike Richard, Olivier did not cheat the voters; he kept their sympathy with a display of dazzling comic intelligence and joie de vivre which presented villainy as just as likely a road as any other to human fulfilment. No other performance I have seen has revealed the basic fact about Richard, that inside the villain is a pantomime dame struggling to get out.

I picked up two other things from that production. One was that a performance can come alive in an open room or a divided room; but it cannot live in both at the same time. Brecht was not above committing this theatrical howler, as in “The Good Woman of Setzuan” where the heroine Shen Te seeks to demonstrate the heartlessness of the world by coming downstage with a little boy and appealing to the audience to adopt him—confident that there will be no offers. The modern stage has developed several effective ways of incriminating the audience, but this is not one of them. The spectator immediately feels cheated; and to my dying day I shall regret not having stood up at the play’s premiere, at the Royal Court in London in 1956, and offered to take the luckless juvenile off Peggy Ashcroft’s hands and treat him to a plate of chips.

From this starting point, the avant-garde companies of the 1960s were always knocking themselves out by trying to walk through the fourth wall. The most egregious example I can remember came in “Dionysus in 69”, Richard Schechner’s reworking of Euripides’s “The Bacchae”, when the preening god offers to make it with any girl in the house. One girl took him up on the invitation and headed purposefully for the acting area, causing Dionysus to pull up the drawbridge and beat a panicky retreat into his divinity.

The other idea that emerged from that first sight of Richard III was that if you aim to present a well-defined character you may be sentencing him to death. Even Olivier couldn’t hide the fact that the stuffing is knocked out of Richard once he gets to be king; as Shakespeare himself warns the actor with the monarch’s dismayed confession that he has lost his “alacrity of spirit”. It was later that I realised that Richard was only one of many characters who come to grief by planning too exactly what they want to do in the world. By exercising free choice they narrow their future freedoms, and the very act of living becomes a process of self-inflicted paralysis.

In the Old Vic’s famous 1944 season, this message was rammed home by pairing Richard III with Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”, whose footloose hero keeps his freedom and vitality up to the last gasp by never committing himself to anything. It is a heroic role. But usually the acid test for heroic actors is whether they can retain Othello’s, Macbeth’s or Cleopatra’s power of choice after all the doors have been locked. Tragedy is about death, but you don’t get the tragic effect from characters who acquiesce in their own extinction.

The greatest example of imaginative escapology I remember was Michael Redgrave’s name performance in “Uncle Vanya” at the 1962 Chichester Festival (pictured right). If ever a character were set on a straight road to the grave, it is Chekhov’s desperate estate manager. But he does have a climax where he tries to kill the bloodsucking professor whom he sees as the author of his wasted life. He fails, of course, and the failure marks his final defeat. As Redgrave played it, though, this was the moment where Vanya—one character among equals—took possession of the play. There was an offstage shot, a scurry of panic-stricken onlookers, and then Redgrave arrived to fire a second shot. I can still see that wild, running figure, seemingly swollen to twice its normal size, shouting “Missed again” even as he pulls the trigger, and so dominating the stage that everyone else shrank into the subhuman dwarfs of his fevered imag-ination. The actor had commandeered the spectator’s viewpoint and converted a realist play into a piece of expressionism.

Another Chekhovian example of the transformation process came in the 2008 Donmar production of “Ivanov” (pictured next page), in which the despairing debt-ridden protagonist receives a visit from his friend, Lebedev, the husband of his chief creditor, who offers to lend Ivanov the money to pacify his miserly wife. In the text, Ivanov says nothing to this offer. In the production Kenneth Branagh let a long moment elapse and then imperceptibly began crumbling to the floor. First the neck, then the shoulders and slackening gut—it took a long time—until he was finally curled up in the fetal position at Lebedev’s feet. During that wordless scene, Branagh converted stage time into psychological time, so as to infect every observer with the sense of what it is to be terminally unmanned.

By now I was on the outlook for transformation, which seemed to me the most magical of all theatrical devices since I first experienced it in a student production of Pirandello’s “Tonight We Improvise”. The magic struck with the arrival of an enraged character who accuses the others of doing him out of his death scene, which would have been a show-stopper. He describes how he would have played it, illustrating the description with stagey gestures and rhetoric until he is so caught up in the scene that he plays it to the end and expires on the floor. The others cluster round to praise or criticise his performance. But they are wasting their time. He is dead.

Source: The Economist
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