Sunday, 28 February 2010

A theatrical interlude

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm feeling quite sad this week. It has been announced in the news that our local theatre has gone into administration and is in danger of closure.

The idea of living in a city that does not have a professional theatre leaves me feeling bereft.

I just looked over the last sentence, and my mind is telling me that the word bereft is too strong. My heart feels the word is exactly the right strength.

Anyone who knows me - or even anyone who has just read my first posts - will have realised by now that I love books. One of the few things that rivals the strength of this passion is my love of the theatre. I like films a lot as well, but I love going to the theatre.

Just writing this blog about theatre means that I am being swamped by memories of plays that I have seen. A big part of writing this blog is trying to train myself to write and think again; to find discipline and structure in what I am writing. I am aware that I have probably been guilty of lack of focus in the couple of entries I have already written. But in this blog I am probably even more likely to be drawn into unfocussed rambling. When I think of how important the theatre feels to me, my mind starts to be overwhelmed by a wealth of images and memories.

My first memory of the theatre is going to a pantomime (this is possibly most people's first memory of going to a theatre). The villain scared me so much that my father had to take me out of the theatre to calm down. Instead of staying in the theatre, he drove me around town to look at the Christmas lights.

After that, my main memory of the theatre is going to see Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My birthday was always around the time that our local amateur G&S company staged their shows, and this would be my birthday treat.

As an adult, I love going to the theatre with others or on my own, but I hate going to the cinema on my own. For me, going to the cinema is a social experience. On the couple of occasions I have gone to the cinema alone, it has been a rather cold and lonely experience - just you, and the flat, unresponsive, images on the screen. But in the theatre you have the flesh and intellect of the actor in front of you - it is never lonely. It is a very intimate, revealing experience - and I love to sit in the front row to try and maximise my connection with the events on stage.

The theatre has a huge capacity to confound expectations. Years ago I saw a production of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real." I went mostly because I love Tennessee Williams - as a repressed Briton, I feel drawn to the catharsis of his over-wrought melodrama and torrid sexuality - and also because Leslie Phillips had been cast, and I was interested to see him on stage. However, I felt Leslie Phillips was miscast as Gutman, the sinister owner of the Siete Mares (or it is equally possible that I was unable to get past my own preconceptions of him as an actor). But I was deeply impressed by another actor in the cast - Peter Egan, as a vulnerable, ageing Casanova. I had only seen Peter Egan on TV before and didn't really have any preconceptions of him - and now I have an abiding memory of his performance being the best thing in that play. In fact, I think my copy of the script for "Camino Real" still has a promotional postcard of him as Casanova, which I used as a book mark.

Theatre is mutable and can always surprise you.

The theatre is also potentially incredibly powerful. I remember seeing a production of "A Winter's Tale." I went knowing little about the play, or about the cast (John Nettles as Leontes, Samantha Bond as Hermione, Richard McCabe as Autolycus and Alan Cox as Florizel). It is probably the most intense theatrical experience I have ever had. This was one of only two occasions when I have been part of the audience for a standing ovation (and this even more remarkable because it was at a matinee - in my experience matinee audiences tend to be small and apathetic). I can't conceive what it must feel like to be an actor receiving a standing ovation, as it is overwhelming enough to be part of the shared euphoria in an audience. I remember walking up the road to catch my bus in a trance afterwards. I think I even walked into a couple of people in a daze.

On a rather more frivolous note, the theatre has also indirectly given me another unique experience. I went to see Terry Johnson's play "Dead Funny." This is one of my favourite plays, with a strong female role which I would covet if I had any acting talent (I've tried and I don't). It is a play I know very well. So, when I walked past the actor who I knew had been cast as the leading man, only an hour before the play was due to start, I was in the position of walking past a complete stranger and knowing with total certainty that I would get to see him totally naked in an hour's time. I should explain that I knew the play had full-frontal male nudity in its first few minutes. You might walk past someone cute in the street and fantasise, maybe even proposition them if you are brave enough (I never was), but I knew.

I now feel even sadder after writing this. If our local theatre closes then I would fewer opportunities to make more memories like these. And, even worse, children who grow up here won't have the opportunites to discover the pleasures of the theatre.

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