Talking Movies

April 5, 2012

Stage v Page

I’ve noted that I tied myself up in absolute knots over the distinction between plays that really have to be seen rather than read, and plays that really have to be seen because they are the best that have ever been written. Here are some musings on it.
 
Anyone who’s done English at college or been involved in amateur dramatics will have read an awful lot of plays, far more than anyone outside of those little bubbles. But reading a play is not the same thing as experiencing a play. The script is the blueprint, and in most cases the reason a play works, but it needs the efforts of the actors and the crew to come alive and realise its potential. I’ve tried here to isolate three key areas where plays need to be seen on stage rather than just read: ambiguity, physicality, and, um, physicality (meant slightly differently). I’ve been trying to get to Chekhov plays whenever there’s a good production on because in performance the layers of his work are truly amazing. Chekhov thought he was writing uproarious comedy, Stanislavsky thought he was writing heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s a joy to see those two interpretations vie for control of the text. Many great plays can be enjoyed as reads, but in performance are additionally ambiguous. Patrick Marber’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker received dazzling reviews for bringing out the black comedy of the material to a hilarious degree, while Hamlet can be played almost any way you want by judicious pruning of the unwieldy text. Then there’re the texts that are just deeply unstable. Kander & Ebbs’ Cabaret has had so many songs cut and pasted back and forth with equivalent scenes from Isherwood over the years that a stable version is impossible. The text is so fluid you never know what to expect. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life deliberately locks in such fluidity by ensuring no two productions will be the same thru ultra-vague directions.
 
I’ve seen Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound twice, and both times the script’s brilliance and precision defeated its own realisation. I saw a cast corpse repeatedly towards the end, having performed After Magritte perfectly, as the jokes just became too funny for them. I then saw a director construct a minimalist set that bore no resemblance to Stoppard’s mirrored theatre and instead appeared to be a small cafe shut for the night with its chairs upside down on top of its tables. The overlapping and interrupting language deployed by Mamet is often impossible to really grasp on the page, so that I didn’t like Speed the Plow when I read it but found it hysterically funny when I saw it performed some years later, while for physicality Jez Butterworth’s live horse on stage in Jerusalem takes some beating. Some plays have to be seen because reading the stage directions alone can’t convey the experience they conjure. How can you properly imagine the farcical chaos of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which people act normally in the dark, and then grope around the stage blindly when the lights are turned on? How funny in performance is the notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear?” What precisely do harassed directors do when they stumble upon Peter Shaffer’s simple yet infuriating stage direction in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, “They cross the Andes”? How can you really feel the true Brechtian alienation reading thru The Life of Galileo when you don’t have the disconcerting physical presence of the director in the corner of the stage turning the pages of the script as the actors rattle thru their lines? How can you grasp the mischievous power of Anthony Shaffer’s 1975 play Murderer unless you actually see on stage the paragraph of stage directions which precede the dialogue on the opening page; a paragraph which we’re told takes 20 minutes of playing time as it describes protagonist Norman Bartholomew dismembering his lover’s naked body beside a window before the local police sergeant arrives following a neighbour’s complaint…
 
You can be familiar with a play from reading it, but you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it in performance.

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