Friday, 19 November 2010
I walk into the Royal Exchange Studio with anticipation, and something close to smugness. I saw Tim Crouch’s England last year, and I expect to be discomfited, to be made intimate with horror. I am in the know. On one side of the narrow traverse, the front row is empty. I sit in it, feeling slightly superior, because I am the sort of person who is not afraid to sit in front rows. I am aware of Crouch opposite me, one row higher up, but don’t see the woman I know, even closer, until she smiles at me. I tell her I shouldn’t be surprised. I only know a couple of dozen people in Manchester, but they’re all the kind of people who would go to this, people who make theatre, teach it, study it. I am not surprised when two more of them walk in.
I keep my feet, my parka, my bag away from the narrow strip of stage, wondering how they will use such a narrow playing area. They won’t; we are the playing area. I look around, seeing two of the other actors quickly, by their poise. They look as if they know what’s going to happen next. I wonder which one is Chris Goode. I read his blog regularly, with ecstatic agreement, occasional bafflement, and an intellectual humility not usual to me; I have no idea what he looks like. I decide he’s the one with hair, there’s something in the face that says the mind behind it could have written the words I’ve read. I know there is a woman in the show, but I can’t decide which of the faces around me is hers, I scan them. There are several pretty, well-groomed women in the room. Women like that always look confident, knowing. They all look like perfomers, she could be any one of them.
* * * * *
Whatever you go to see, you bring yourself to it. This may be more true of The Author than of anything else I’ve seen. So much so, that I’m not sure a verb as passive in its implications as “to see” is the right one.
The self who is me brings a heightened awareness of this space, the different ways I’ve seen it arranged, the columns behind my seating bank and the double doors beyond, the staircase behind them leading to the dressing rooms. Did I not say I was an insider? Have I not performed here, all of twice?
I boast to myself of this, even as I resolve to set aside my superior knowledge, to be the audience that is needed (as if any of us could be anything else).
As it progresses, I am aware of the backstage tannoy, bringing fragments of dialogue and chant, faint as echoes, from The Bacchae in the main house. I try not to intellectualize this, but it is so very apposite. I remember that the horrors of the ancient Greek stage were spoken , not shown.
* * * * *
There is no impatience in the long space between the closing of the house doors and the first line spoken. There is curiosity in the open gazes all around, bright with the expectation of pleasure. The actor whose name I will learn is Vic makes friendly faces at me. He makes a corkscrew gesture with his finger, near his head. I think he’s saying something about my curls. I don’t know how to respond. I shrug, drop the contact.
Later, in another pause, I fish out my notebook. I have impressions to write down. I sit with it in my lap, unable to bring myself to stop looking at people long enough to write.
* * * * *
Chris speaks first, confidingly, as if we were all in the same position. I wonder if we are meant to believe that we are.
In the long, expectant pause afterwards, as we chat to each other in a way that feels spontaneous though we know it’s orchestrated, I sound out the girl next to me, to find out what she made of that first interjection. She says it makes you look at everyone in the audience differently, wondering who else might be in it. She says she thought I might be. Flattered (though I suspect it’s only my theatrically gaudy sweater that misleads her, and not the quality of my presence) I tell her I’m not. I point out Tim Crouch, and Vic, explain my reasoning. The woman behind us leans in to listen. Though I clock her curiosity, what must be her amusement, I am still surprised when, later, she turns out to be the fourth member of the cast.
The long pauses continue to unfold, in between the shaping, from the different angles, of the story of a fictional production, a fan’s experience of theatre, a writer’s immersion in a sensory deprivation tank.
* * * * *
As the listening becomes more difficult, I watch our faces change, become guarded, watchful. I see the glances away, at hands knotted in laps, at the floor. I promise myself I will not look away.
It’s the story about the Italian that gets me. It is Esther speaking it, and she is seated behind me. I have turned to watch her before, and will again, but this time I can’t look at her or anyone else. I don’t know that it’s the worst story. I know that it’s the story for which I can look only at the blue painted boards of the floor.
I am slightly shamed by this, and spend the rest of the show with as open a gaze as I can muster. By the end, only the actors are gazing back.
* * * * *
It is a supremely intelligent piece of work, this. Yes, like England, it’s at some level, about the complicity of the comfortable with horror. It goes further though, seeming to indict the very act of imagination. And if pretending is somehow morally suspect, isn’t pretense that skirts so close to autobiography the most untrustworthy of all?
All along, it creates reflections. What one character says or shows lingers, sharing the space with other things said. The juxtapositions become uncomfortable, then something is so cosy that we laugh in recognition, then the recognition is rendered more uncomfortable still.
The particular horror at the centre of this (if there is only one), no less central for coming near the end, is not the kind of horror the ancient Greeks shied from staging. It is a horror of commission only in the most distanced and indirect way. Mostly, it is a horror of conjuction; it brings together things that must not be brought together. So did The Author; it brought them together in the space and time we shared, in the social sphere that was all of us in that theatre, but most insidiously, in the space of each of our minds.
This is what it means to break taboo.
* * * * *
I have read a bit about it on the internet, and I am putting this on my blog. Virtual space, too is part of this. Though the show is technically minimal, all about shared presence and space, the ghost of the internet is here. It’s in the text, and the story, it’s also on my mind.
I’m here because I read Chris Goode’s blog, and what I read about this made me want to see it. I know that Hannah Nicklin’s written about it , having seen it recently. I did not read her piece, won't read it until after I've posted this, but I know the title. It says she didn’t clap.
When it’s over, neither do I. I think I would have done the same without knowing that title.
I do not seek out the people I know for an analytical chat. I linger for a while, near the sign that announces the price of the play text, but no-one appears to sell it to me, so I go.
It is not that I was horrified, or shamed. I was both, but not to the extent I was expecting, not viscerally. It is not either that I wanted to contemplate the beauty of it, though it was very beautiful. I needed to pick at it myself, at my own scab, to try to understand, or rather to pinpoint my several understandings.
I think it may be a masterpiece. I think it may be a dead end. I can’t imagine anyone going further down this road, or more intelligently.
If, as Le Corbusier said, a house is a machine for living, The Author is a machine for making the audience look at itself. It comes up to you in a frank and friendly way, takes you by the hand and leads you down pleasant paths to a dark place; a dark place with a mirror in it.