Having seen Will Eno’s ‘Oh, The Humanity’ at Soho Theatre last week, a lot of my students commented on the unconventional ‘interactive’ elements of the production. Only, when I thought about it, I realised that the last four things I’d watched at the theatre had all attempted a quite deliberate and specific engagement with the audience. And in each case, something about that transaction defined my feelings towards the play. Those productions were: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Globe; the Danish theatre company Republique’s version of ‘Hamlet’; Will Eno’s collection of shorts mentioned above; and The RSC’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’.
As far as the two (original) Shakespeares were concerned, the nature of this engagement derived mainly from the place of performance. The Globe is a theatre that demands the acknowledgement of a shared space. Shakespeare’s characters often directly invoke the audience and, as well as a running metaphor of theatre-as-life, site-specific references are frequently embedded within the texts. (These days, we have the added anachronism of planes flying overhead; actors stopping to let them pass being a guaranteed crowd pleaser.) With that in mind, the critical response to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was interesting. Whilst the Daily Mail revelled in the simple fun of it all, the Guardian characterised it as ‘conventionally jolly’, never digging far beneath the surface. Michael Billington is sometimes criticised for a fixation with the ‘political’ in the theatre, but although I thoroughly enjoyed this production, part of me agrees that it was a missed opportunity to present one of Shakespeare’s most unsettling works in a relatively un-nuanced way. Isn’t a venue that has this relationship with its audience hardwired into it the perfect place to confront the play’s more troubling aspects? (By the by, it’s probably not worth being angry at the Daily Mail any more, but it’s amazing how effortlessly it can cause offence. Take this casual aside: ‘The Shrew will never be Harriet Harman’s favourite Shakespeare…’)
On the other hand, ‘Julius Caesar’, a West End transfer for the RSC, attempted to co-opt some of the Globe’s spirit. With the house lights up, the play was prefaced by music and dancing on stage, but the performers struggled in vain to reach out beyond the proscenium arch. Over the weekend, I read a piece of political commentary by Andrew Rawnsley that borrowed and adapted an Oscar Wilde quotation (quite freely, I think, as I haven’t been able to source the original…) Anyway, the basic idea was that authenticity is a uniquely prized possession. And once you can fake it, you’re made. It turns out to be a rather apt quotation in the context of Julius Caesar itself, but it also speaks to the dilemma of ‘artifice’ in the theatre. At any rate, this attempt to import something of the Globe’s participatory aesthetic into a West End venue didn’t fake it well enough for me.
In ‘Hamlet’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - a highly physical, multimedia ‘adaptation’ with live music by the Tiger Lilies - a different kind of engagement relied on the extent to which the audience knew the source material. Although some key scenes were preserved reasonably intact, much was skipped, re-ordered, or replaced. The result was a production that fell between two stools. Knowing the original fairly well, I found the snippets of text aggravating; I’d have preferred a freer interpretation. At the same time, I don’t think a newcomer to the play would have had much idea what was going on. The interaction with the audience was predicated on an assumed familiarity with the story, which simultaneously robbed it of its own energy.
And so to ‘Oh the Humanity’, a series of five short plays (mostly monologues) riff-ing on the gap between presentation and belief, and the hopeless ways in which we try to suppress our emotions. The plays are certainly beautifully crafted and lyrically realised. But they left me a bit cold. Perhaps the most distancing (if arguably the most interesting) was the fourth piece. Here the action spun 180 degrees, and the two characters on stage suddenly involved the audience in the setting up of a staged photograph. As we in the auditorium tried to fix our faces in an appropriate way, we were gently hectored and cajoled. The piece was all about authenticity - what can you read behind the eyes of those frozen on film? Formally, then, the device was in keeping with the wider questions of the play. So why did it feel so false? Why did I find myself becoming irritated by the faux spontaneity of the performers? The acting mantras of ‘living in the moment’ and ‘saying everything for the first time’, which count for so much behind a fourth wall, seemed contrived and disingenuous in this shared space. Ironically (perhaps) the audience’s inability to participate in a real conversation with the characters/performers was more starkly obvious here than in much naturalistic drama. Andrew Rawnsley’s butchered Oscar Wilde quotation seems appropriate in this context too. And while it’s a commonplace that the theatre depends on, demands, even inherently contains the concept of an audience, it’s also fascinating just how fragile and contingent that relationship can be.