Theatre and space traverse the distance of the everyday.
Thinking on the nature of the theatre space and its’ impact on performance and the audience, in the first instance I always look for the beauty. Beauty feeds the soul. It is colour and form and tone and gesture. It is inherent in the grand gesture of nature as in grand opera that stirs the emotions with its opening phrases or in the vast landscapes of a Tolstoy novel. In their profound wisdom, the ancient Greeks combined nature and landscape within the theatre space and with the added exertion of making the pilgrimage to the sacred site, theatre lovers would enter the liminal. Whatever happened after that, by way of performance, was duty-bound to traverse the distance of the everyday. To transport the audience to places, emotions, rarely encountered.
Historically theatre architecture preceded that of cathedrals and yet the evocation of awe is the same. Two great monuments to art that have been featured on television recently, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and the Sydney Opera House, both provide me with that sense of the liminal, of entering alternative space, a place where I may be transmuted from the cares of the everyday, a place where I engage with other or the sublime. After all isn’t that the reason we go to a Cathedral or to a theatre? But let’s stick with theatre just now because I’ve had some really interesting theatre space experiences recently.
Over drinks my dear theatre friend, David Adamson, commented on my European theatre travels and suggested that it was the drama of the theatre spaces that contributed to the richness of the experience. And indeed on reflection that is so. The Epidavros Ampitheatre, the open-air Corral in Almagro, the medieval Teatro Francesco Torti in Bevagna, a village near Spoleto, and even the factory site spaces in Athens mightily contributed to the tenor of the theatre works.
In my thesis From Ancient Greece to Glenrowan etc, I included the element of place but my attention to the space was more directed to our cleverness in converting a community hall into a theatre space. However, the conversion was intentional in creating a sense of the liminal and with great dollops of creativity and volunteer man power, the transformation was affected. Great design work by Peter Mumford.
And this brings me to two of my recent theatre space experiences. Room of Regret based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (devised and directed by Emma Valente) was an offering of The Melbourne Festival. Staged at Theatreworks in St.Kilda, the space was converted into a labyrinth of small rooms into which the audience members, veiled in curtain fabric, were ushered and instructed to sit upon the waiting stools. Actors appeared somewhat randomly in the small rooms and did beautiful work. They were truly beautiful in their posture, gesture, vocal delivery and ecstatic eroticism, but for me, the space defeated the majesty of the production. Hidden away in a corner, veiled, and deposited on a stool except when I was invited to dance in an orgiastic sequence, there was no sense of space. No opportunity to connect with or truly experience the wonder of the grandeur of gesture or tone and while I can appreciate the notion of closed Victorian spaces and what goes on behind veil curtains, my sense of wonder was replaced by a sense of frustration, irritation and audience abuse. In my reflection, I wonder if the piece would have been more suited to in-the-round or traverse staging where the audience could also have the ‘in your face’ experience the direction mandated. Sadly, for me, this production was unable to traverse the distance of the everyday.
A more successful use of space was the National Theatre’s Macbeth. Once again I made the pilgrimage to the Nova, Carlton to see the HD relay of Kenneth Brannagh’s production.
Expecting a traditional production, imagine my surprise when I discovered it to be in a disused church in Manchester. The nave was transformed into a traverse setting with the sanctuary, a highly appropriate playing area. The balconies, and even the windows, are used to great effect from whence the Witches, Banquo’s ghost and Lady Macbeth deliver their immortal passages.
But back to the traverse, which resembles a muddy racetrack, imagine the audience involvement being adjacent to the numerous real sword wielding battles, the first of which takes place in rain! Yes the turf did become a quagmire and yes the actors strutted through the muck, died in the muck and lied in the muck. This was theatre space from heaven…pardon the intended pun. And although I was only a cinema viewer, I was there in the muck and in the awe of the liminal. If only I’d been there in person. A wonderful experience indeed, where theatre and space did traverse the distance of the everyday.