The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

An oak tree

I saw a play tonight. This is what it was about …

A man loses his daughter in a car accident. Nothing now is what it is. It's like he's in a play - but he doesn't know the words or the moves. The man who was driving the car is a stage hypnotist. Since the accident, he's lost the power of suggestion. His act's a disaster. For him, everything now is exactly what it is. For the first time since the accident, these two men meet. They meet when the father volunteers for the hypnotist's act. And, this time, he really doesn't know the words or the moves...

And here’s the thing about this play. The actor playing the father has only met the actor playing the hypnotist one hour previously. He has never seen a script. He doesn’t know anything more about the show than the audience. He discovers it as he goes along - reading from clipboards, fed lines via an ear piece or obeying whispered instructions from the other actor (who also devised and wrote the piece).

It’s raw theatre. As in the moment as it’s possible to be. Like dancing on a knife edge blindfolded in front of a paying crowd. It’s impossible to describe really which makes it doubly annoying that I’m compelled to try. Even the initial conversation between the two actors ‘out of character’ is scripted with the guest answering simple questions like ‘Are you nervous?’ by reading ‘yes … a little’ off a clipboard.

‘Don’t be’ comes the grinning response.

But this isn’t wilfully bizarre theatre for its own sake. The form fits the message, the hesitant and lost actor at its centre able to conjure the broken and bleary world his character inhabits by drawing on the powerfully theatrical device of the play’s central conceit. He is bound to the audience as we discover together just what his life has become. He clings to the actor playing the hypnotist, relying on him for suggestion and encouragement - what to say, where to move, how to look, what to feel - a form of lucid voluntary hypnosis in its own right. More than anything I’ve seen in recent years, this play dances in the twilight place that exists between actor and character, contracting and relaxing that delicate membrane that allows a fictional creation to stand centre stage and the player to stand one atom further back. Stanislavski thought of this tension, this interplay between performer and performance as armour, breastplate and visor to be strapped on before every curtain up. For Meyerhold it was the handful of strings to tug the marionette. Here it is arguably the power of suggestion, the ability for objects in the mind to become fully realised on stage just because we will them to be. A tree becomes a child. An actor becomes a character. A script becomes a cry from the heart. What is hypnosis but the outward manifestation of internalised creativity? What is theatre, for that matter? When an actor steps on stage he creates a character out of thin air, he makes you believe on some level that there is a person in the room who isn’t actually there.

As the play progresses the scripted ‘out of character’ moments blend with the narrative ‘in character’ voices until every level on which you’re watching - the play, the concept, the hypnosis act, the father’s fractured inner life, the technical feats required to pull it all off - seem to come to the same conclusion. That we create the world around us, that reality is in the eye of the beholder.

But, of course, that’s just my opinion.

It was a memorable night and a fascinating piece of theatre. I’ll leave you with this - near the end, the guest actor turns to his co-star and reads the following from his clipboard:

‘You’re very good in this. It’s very well written.’

‘Thanks’ comes the carefully considered throw-away reply.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris - it was extraordinary. Do you know about Tims blog in the Guardian? Link here to the third part


6:58 pm  

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