Theatre – Many of the Feels

Almeida Theatre’s adaptation of 1984 is touring and I saw it last night at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. NB: There are minor spoilers below.

Good story coverage (I’m told); good application of technology; design that made me smile, sometimes at inappropriate moments. The strongest moments were the simplest: the ‘6 chairs across the stage’ bit that’s in the promotional material, the finely propped and scored juxtaposition at the end, and the great use of bunny suits (clean room, not Easter). The narrative was too erratic, and the characters were too much puppets of circumstance for me to get that ‘ah I just had a great meal’ feeling that I like after a play, but my discussants led me to believe this is the nature of the text, and that distant feeling was probably intentional because of the torture.

So yeah, there’s violence in this play -likely a cakewalk compared to Cleansed (Kane; National Theatre, London through 5 May)– but there’s fake blood, and creepy chairs, and restraints, and some really disturbing guided imagery (wonderful that imagination is used to torment the audience in a play about thought crime). Most of which is actually less interesting than how the audience reacted.

Several people walked out. I did not get to talk to any of them about their reactions. But one of the people who left was sitting three seats to my left and I had a chance to witness her deteriorating ability to look at the play to the point where she was curled over her lap with her hands over her eyes. When she finally left her tears and distress were evident.

A few minutes earlier when the fourth wall was broken and the characters were asking for help, I was genuinely stirred enough that I felt a strong urge to rise and volunteer. These reactions, even those of alienation, are why I love theatre, and why I believe it’s invaluable to civilization.

Theatre is artifice. Attending the theatre is a choice to go into a purpose-fitted space, to witness fakery for a limited amount of time. But the mere fact that the fakery is committed by human beings on a human scale inevitably touches something very real. We forget that the horror (or the hilarity) will end. That presence and unavoidable human connection are what this art form is all about.

In the case of violence -let’s actually use the word atrocities- playing on stage with realism instead of stylistic allusion, one has to know themselves and make a personal choice. It is desperately uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of sickening, to watch one human being perpetrate painful, violating, cruel acts on another human being. And doing so requires confronting an equally uncomfortable set of emotions: the guilty weight of having the privilege to absent yourself from the horror; knowing that it is fake and will end; confronting the helplessness of your witness state and the way that layers on your fear. I think it’s valuable to feel those things, so I would encourage anyone to go to a play that pushes those buttons and think on it a bit. But I won’t respect you any less for opting out. Theatre is potent. Thank heavens we still react so viscerally to other humans. Let’s keep theatre around so we don’t lose that, eh?

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