By David Edgar
What do we expect from theatre experiences, and, once we’ve been, what do we remember? Is what we remember at the time conditioned by those expectations? Months or years later, what do we retain?
The British Theatre Consortium is currently conducting a study to try and find these things out. Inevitably, those of us who are working on the study have been thinking about own theatre-going past (and present). Aware of the Heisenberg principle (the act of observation changing what’s being observed), we realise that we already seeing the shows that we are studying through the prism of the fact that we are asking people we don’t know questions about them.
I’ve been going to the theatre since 1952 so I am particularly interested in what I’ve retained over very long periods of time. Conventional wisdom is bad for playwrights (of which I’m one). Audiences are thought to remember the visual over the verbal, the momentary over the narrative, the music rather than the book. As director Neil Bartlett likes to remark, no one turned to their lover in the romantic darkness of the theatre and whispered “darling, they’re saying our speech”.
So does that fit with my childhood and early adult playgoing memories? My first memory isn’t really a memory at all: family legend has it that, when taken to my first theatre play, Beauty and the Beast, I was so terrified by the first entrance of the masked and fearsome creature that I screamed the place down. Eventually, my behaviour became so disruptive that I had to be removed from the auditorium, and as, conveniently, my aunt was administrator of the theatre, I was escorted backstage to meet the now maskless beast in his dressing room, to shake his hand, to watch him put his mask on again, to shake his hand a second time, and to be taken back into the auditorium. Thus reassured, on his next entrance, I screamed the place down.
My real memories of theatre shows tend to confirm the conventional view. In my childhood I had a model theatre, and in my teens I wanted (among other dream-on ambitions) to become a stage designer. So I have very strong memories of the sets of the shows I saw in the 60s, from John Bury’s rough, rusty metallic box sets for Peter Hall and John Barton’s Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, to Sean Kenny’s groundbreaking set for Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver, in which visible lamps hung over a junkyard set on an open revolve. I also, as it happens, remember Kenny’s wonderfully simple set for the Redgrave/Olivier Uncle Vanya, which consisted, on Chichester’s thrust stage, of a single, vast, textured wall, which served for both the outdoor and indoor scenes, I saw the production again at the Old Vic, which is not a thrust stage. In the first act (set outside), the wall remained as it was in Chichester. At the first scene change, two hitherto invisible sidewings of the wall swung a few degrees forward, enclosing and trapping the characters as they moved from the open air into the increasingly claustrophobic interior. I remembered that image much more recently, seeing Rachel Kavanaugh’s 2007 Vanya on the notoriously large Birmingham Rep stage, in which the sets for the four acts retained the stage’s width while reducing its depth, so that the open stage of the first act became a shallow ribbon across the front for the final scene in Vanya’s tiny office/bedroom.
So, does my entire bank of theatrical memories consist of sets and scene changes? Certainly, the moment when, on its revolve, the Parisian streets upend and turn into a barricade is one of my most vivid memories of Les Miserables, as is the last scene change in David Hare’s play about the disillusion of post-war Britain, Plenty, in which a dark and seedy, early 60s Blackpool hotel room shatters apart, to reveal a dazzling summer’s day on a French hillside in 1944. So my memories tend to confirm the thesis that we remember the visual and the momentary rather than the verbal and the meaningful.
But, hang on a moment. These are all, certainly, potent and sometimes dazzling visual moments, but why do they stick in the memory over others? Why, having been dragged to the Circe du Soleil more times than I care to recall, can I dredge up no recollection of a single act? The answer lies in the work of the 20th century dramatist and director who understood – perhaps better than anyone else – the role of the telling visual image in conveying meaning. Brecht even had a word for it: the gestus. From the telescope which no one ever looks through in the first Florence scene in Galileo, to Mother Courage pulling her empty cart against the direction of the treadmill revolve, Brecht understood that the images help us to process and retain the meaning he wants to convey (indeed, without the meaning, what are they? A piece of scientific equipment and an empty turntable). And, by the same token, the meaning makes the image memorable.
So the Plenty scene change sticks in the mind because it goes from the chronological end of the story, with the central character in disillusioned despair, to her moment of greatest hope in the future (the last line of the play, in newly liberated France, is “there will be days and days and days like this”). By assembling the higgledy-piggledy barricade from ordered Parisian architecture, Les Miserables designer John Napier was making the point that the barricade represented a literal upending and reassembly of bourgeois Paris into a place of revolution. Sean Kenny’s Vanya set is a metaphor for the increasing enclosure of the characters. And, in fact, the scene I remember most strongly from Oliver is a scene without any spectacle at all, in which the revolve was still and there was only one figure on the stage. And why is Fagin’s I’m Reviewing the Situation – particularly as sung by the incomparable Ron Moody – the best number in a live performance of Oliver? Because it is about character expressed through narrative, indeed a series of speculative narratives, in which Fagin weighs up his possible future lives beyond the world of crime (the tag line of the chorus being “I think I’d better think it out again”).
Verbally, Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays are not among the most obviously quotable, though the fourth play of the tetralogy (Richard III) certainly is, from its first line onwards. Seeing the whole cycle (compressed into three plays) over one day at the RSC in 1963, I particularly remember Peggy Ashcroft’s Queen Margaret, then in her mid-50s, ageing from a young French princess in her late teens to a vengeful ancient during the course of the day: one of the most vivid scenes remaining – in that and other productions – the battle in which she dresses her captured enemy the Duke of York in a paper crown before killing him (gestus, gestus). But the single moment I remember was an invented, monosyllabic line.
If you do Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays with Richard III, then the end of the penultimate play presents a challenge and an opportunity. The last scene of Henry VI brings together the surviving sons of the Duke of York – George Duke of Clarence, Richard Duke of Gloucester and their elder brother, now King Edward – to celebrate their victory over the House of Lancaster; the scene ending with a couplet from the new king which appears to put a final full stop on the civil discord of Henry’s long reign:
“Sound drums and trumpets – farewell, sour annoy!
For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy”.
However, we know that sour annoy is far from over, and that its continuance will be heralded by Richard of Gloucester, at the beginning of the next play, in the most famous opening lines in Shakespeare. Directors have acknowledged this at the end of this play by having Richard actually start the speech (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) or indeed bark out the first word “Now”. But, in the 1963, Wars of the Roses version, the solution was even crisper. After the triumphalist last scene, Edward leads his court out of the state chamber, their boots clattering across the steel floor. Left behind is Richard (magnetically played by Ian Holm), sitting, alone, at one end of the huge oval council table. Holm turned to the audience, paused, and pronounced a single, dismissive and prophetic monosyllable: “hmmph”.
You kind of have to know what’s coming. But, if you do, it’s a wonderfully ironic, defiantly colloquial way of propelling an audience which had sat through six hours of high political drama into the final, climactic episode.
For that and all of the above, thanks for the memory.
David Edgar is a playwright and member of the British Theatre Consortium