One thing that has become noticeable about online theatre is that the length of quite a number of pieces has shrunk considerably as the weeks have gone by. It is certainly no longer the case that “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” has remained the norm. Plays of under half an hour are now very common and provide an economically non-risky way of seeking out newer talent. And the intense experience these vignettes can provide means that, even on a busy day, there’s time to fit something in. So it is that every now and again I’ve found it useful to have a sweep round and see what’s on offer in the new ‘short and sharp’ category.
The first of these, yesterday, turned out to be a little gem. In A Nutshell comes from the Lost Dog Company which styles itself primarily as a dance troupe. However, in this piece written and performed by company founder Ben Duke, movement is confined to a minimum. The speaker remains seated in the plush red seats of a theatre and basically gives the viewer an explanation as to what theatres were all about – for the conceit is that, following the pandemic, theatres have never reopened and their purpose as an historical artefact has to be explained. A popular way of getting children to write a descriptive piece about something or an event is to ask them to imagine that they are explaining whatever it is to an alien. That is the unsettling effect here as the speaker invites us to consider what, on the face of it, seems bizarre behaviour as people gather in a darkened room to watch other people on a platform doing stuff.
The first section concentrates on the audience who shuffle in with their alcohol and their snacks (because they don’t know how long they are going to be held captive). They sit in close proximity with people they have never met and current viewers are invited to replicate the experience by inviting another member of their household to huddle next to us – or failing that to use a pot plant as a substitute. Next, we consider events from an actor’s point of view as he tells us about an appearance in a Greek tragedy – the evidence seems to point to Euripides’ Andromache. This highlights how, at a rational level, the activity is quite absurd as people pretend to be people they are not, carrying things which are representations of reality and interacting in ways that seem outlandish. The final section concentrates on the contact between the speaker and the video viewer. The key point here is to demonstrate what we are losing by not being in a live situation.
Now, all this is extremely well done and Duke as our guide holds attention throughout, even though the character he is playing seems hesitant and often lost for words. He is basically trying to describe the indescribable as, at base, the act of theatre going is all about feelings, reactions and interactions rather than its physical characteristics. It is significant that the play finishes on the word “Um” (sorry about the plot spoiler) as he just cannot sum up what it is all about with mere words. I thought this was a fabulous reminder of what we are perilously close to losing and actually watched the performance twice to make sure I got all the subtleties. This piece is short, sweet and highly recommended.
The second short play turned out to be a salutary reminder of something live theatre does which cannot be replicated in any other way as it centres on a thoroughly immersive experience for the audience. In order to get the full effect via video the viewer really has to place themselves in the position of an audience member and try and evoke the experience in their heads. The play is a short (less than ten minute) sketch by Harold Pinter called Night. A couple of years ago the Pinter At The Pinter season explored all the writer’s short works across seven themed performances but they do seem to have missed this one. It turns out that the playlet was written as part of montage of new writing on the theme of marriage called Mixed Doubles (other contributors were Alan Ayckbourn, Fay Weldon and David Campton). Here, of course, it has been separated out and director Iddo Gruengard has created an interesting theatrical experiment which does the original piece justice but also plays with conventions.
As written the playlet is conventional enough (well, as conventional as Pinter ever was) and falls into the category of one of his memory plays. Two characters, simply called The Woman and The Man, reminisce about the first time they met. But their memories are at odds especially when it comes to the detail. There seems to be agreement that they met at a party but when they left did they walk or drive? As they walked (if they walked) did they stop on a bridge or next to some railings? It is in the detail that they cannot reach consensus and that would seem to be a metaphor for their general life together. The couple, designated as in their forties in the script but clearly much younger here, are played with intensity by Laura Atherton and Guy Evans; they circle round each other in the space speaking with increasing unease and even venom.
The pair play the scene once and then return to the start and repeat. This time as memories, false or otherwise, occur to them the actors bring members of the audience into the space and directly address them; they are then left in the playing area as symbols of the memories that are being spoken of. Eventually key phrases and sentences are repeated and start to appear as text on a screen. At this point the audience members start to read out the lines and the actors fade into the background leaving just the audience/memories to their own devices. Even though the video itself is a bit on the rough side (and there seems to be a constant buzz of noise from outside the auditorium) the power of the idea comes over. However, you are definitely left with the feeling that this was a totally theatrical event and that being in the room at the time must have been infinitely better.
Both these short pieces centre on the uniqueness of the medium which is theatre. It is evident that over the last few weeks some venues and companies have started to explore ways of getting back to basics and it is to be hoped that yesterday’s announcement of the first round of beneficiaries of the ACE Cultural Recovery funding will provide a further shot in the arm. Meanwhile it is highly ironic that, for most of us at this time, the only way to access the material is via video; but, as I’ve said all along, I am grateful for that, at least.
Production photos of In A Nutshell by Rachel Bunce
In A Nutshell is available via the Lost Dog website; click here. Night is available via Scenesaver; click here
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