The Play’s The Thing

Teatime. The conversation was lurching around like a gnu on LSD.

“So, Maddie,” my eight year old son asked his elder sister: “Pick a landmark. Any landmark you like.”

Maddie chose The Angel Of The North, that rather unsettling post-modern 20-foot sculpture of a man with airplane wings which presides over the A1 at Gateshead.

“If you could do anything with it – anything at all,” continued Felix, magnanimously throwing the gates of possibility wide, “what would you do?”

Maddie considered briefly. Finally she announced that she would put it in a museum.

“What about you, Mum?” my son continued.

“Stonehenge,” I rejoined. “And I’d glass the whole thing over so people could get closer to it.”

The children nodded sagely. What their mother had suggested was deemed A Good Idea.

“Well,” Felix grinned, the limelight his at last; “I would buy the Sydney Opera House, and I would turn it into a cinema. It would have all the seats – you would only need to take out the stage and put in a cinema screen and you’d be ready to go!”

The Sydney Multiplex.

It didn’t have quite the same ring to it as its current incarnation.”Wow!” I nodded brightly, if non-commitally.

The conversation meandered on, but I couldn’t leave it there.

“So, Felix,” I ventured after what I considered a timely interval, “would you rather watch a film or see something on stage?”

Well, stage, obviously, said Felix.

“And what if you could see the same play as a film, or in front of you on a stage: what would you choose?”

He chose a play. And when I asked why, both he and Maddie were almost lost for words. The closest Maddie could get was “Mum, they’re not there when it’s a film. When it’s a play you’re there with them, and they are there with you. It’s exciting.”

You are there with them, and they are there with you.

The newest incarnation of The Globe, built on the banks of the Thames just next to the Millennium Bridge, has recreated the breathtaking days of early English Theatre.

Acting on a formal stage was fairly new to England at the time of the first Globe, and folks thronged across the river on ferries and London Bridge, paying to stand under the sky, just down the road from the bear-baiting, to watch actors summoning who knows what magic to enchant their audiences?

I would have loved those seats closest to the stage where anything might happen and much did: where the food sellers and the ladies of the night alike cruised the people in search of hunger or boredom.

It is an actor who expresses the immediacy, the bare-faced electricity when one sits in Sam Wanamaker’s reconstruction: “I guess The Globe has taught me even more respect for it,”wrote Mark Rylance in the Sunday Express, back in 2002,”Here, you are aware of how much Shakespeare kept the audience in mind and what a difference there is when an actor is able to do that too…

“Often all the energy has to come from the stage – everyone else is in darkness, passive in their seats; but here, the audience isn’t divided by darkness from the actors. That makes them integral to the action – as powerful, if not more so, than the players.”

Being an observer in the presence of someone who becomes someone else: it’s really quite transforming. Mystical, almost.

And it has been since ancient times.

Since Dionysus, in fact.

Not a tame Greek God, that one. Gestated in Zeus’s thigh, some stories say; others claim he was raised as a girl to protect his identity; nurtured by rain-nymphs who were rewarded for their care by a place among the stars of the heavens.

Exceptionally attractive, though. Magnetic. A charismatic god touting a cult of wine, known alternatively as liberator; as ‘he who unties’; and in Macedonia, as “false man”.

We’re back to that old chestnut: to be ‘false’ – to become someone else – is liberating. Occasionally, consuming.

He it was who inspired theatre and the first false men: who lent his identity to the theatre of Dionysus, and who fuelled a cult where men lost themselves entirely to ecstasy, and to something larger beyond their understanding.

With such ancestry it is little wonder that any theatre stage can beat a film screen hollow.

After our chat, Felix has decided that perhaps the Sydney Opera House should remain the Sydney Opera house.

And we have all concluded that the sparks which fly unseen through a theatre are unsurpassed: a nonpareil.

None of us can wait to return to hear the creak of those boards once more.

Do take a look at some of the other great writers in the bloggers’ collective to which I belong: There’s a duck on a fence and some dry wit at The Good Luck Duck today; my great friend Brett takes your breath away with a luminescent glowing soul at Surface Nuisance; and for Provence at its most seductive, there’s Earlybird at Mangetout and other Stories. Her olive harvest was such a joy to read.

34 thoughts on “The Play’s The Thing

  1. Phew! I’m glad Felix changed his mind. (Although maybe some Australians would agree with his suggestion.)

    Nice post, Kate.

    And thanks for the mention. I just haven’t had time/energy to get round the new blogs with any concentration yet… 😦 (blame NaNo…)

  2. I agree with Felix. With live theater I always feel a tension in the air. Sometimes I feel I’m as involved as the actors.

    (A gnu on LSD? No harm to gnus intended, but I would like to see that.)

  3. I remember going to theatre in the round at Stratford for a production of Macbeth years ago…. so very powerful, being so close I agree.

    I visited the Sydney Opera House: only the outside though, unless you count sneaking in to use the loos. (Fantastic loos.)
    But I never saw anything on stage there! Perhaps Felix should experience that before he finally decides to take out the stage and put in projectors?!

  4. The power of live theatre can be extraordinary. Watch David Haig in The Madness of King George to feel your emotions being stretched to the limit. Wonderful, passionate stuff that makes you laugh and cry.

    Stonehenge? I would make a soft-play replica of it and let people re-arrange it, jump and bounce all over it. The Druids can have the real one, obviously.

  5. Dear Kate,
    Your blog has quickly become a favorite of mine. I learn so much from your postings of past and present. Your posts are lessons in culture and history that rise up from a family that enjoys and respects one another’s minds and hearts.

    These posts invite us to learn the import of what you are exploring. In other words, your posts stretch both my mind and my imagination. And the questions that are often hidden within the words beckon me to thought and reflection.

    Thank you, Kate. The masks the Greek actors wore remind me of the masks you wrote about a few days ago. Connection here.


  6. So glad both of your kids appreciate live performance. To me, there is nothing like it, from both sides of the house. I love watching a show, knowing my every reaction is fueling the energy onstage. Being up there, knowing I have to be present, make it happen, get myself out of whatever goes wrong, is like nothing else. It is almost more fun when things go wrong, just to rise to the challenge of making the audience believe what the cast creates on the fly.

  7. For me, it depends upon what’s being shown. Some stories are well conveyed on stage ~ e.g., Romeo and Juliet. For others, I’d much rather watch a film ~ e.g., Harry Potter or Nanny McPhee.

    I love eavesdropping on your tea times, Kate.

  8. Glad Felix came around! I’d be really disappointed if I ever make it to Sydney and find the opera house had become a multiplex!

  9. How wonderful that your children have already developed such a keen interest and appreciation for live theater. I have a particular passion for live musical theater, but on my “things that make me happy” list all theater is top. I’ve passed that love onto my children, too, and I know the next generation is going to have the same introduction. When I think of THE Globe…I remember writing a paper in college and being called into someone’s office under suspicion that I’d plagierized the research. I managed to get myself out from under that suspicion when I could hold the conversation on my end without wavering. In truth, I had such awe and respect and desire to know more, I’d outdone myself in research ability. I just adore stories of your children’s curiosity and intellect. They give me hope! 🙂 I will look forward to reading the posts you’ve highlighted. What a prolific band of creatives! Debra

  10. A lot more than Opera takes place at the SOH, Kate.
    About 30 years ago, I remember attending a “Folkloric Festival” there, full of all the folk musics that make up Australia. Very interesting and entertaining.

    Love Dad

      1. I bumbled around one Saturday afternoon. No one stopped me as I guess I didn’t look like a tourist. It’s an interesting place, wonderful musical sounds came through some doors, but I wasn’t rude enough to disrupt a live performance, so I wandered on, and finally left, feeling a little like a peeping tom

        A later trip to Sydney over at the circular quay near the SOH I thought they must be showing the Pirates of Penzance, only to realise a few seconds later I’d seen the US warship come into the harbour the day previously – silly imagination.

  11. It does depend… for instance wonderful scenic shots, animals, etc are perfect for film, whereas plays where the background is ‘closed’ are much more suitable for live stage. However, I must agree that the atmosphere of being close to the players is electric!

  12. I love the theatre and the orchestra – and I loved being involved behind the scenes as part of the lighting and sound crew. Is there anything as exciting as an opening night when the orchestra is tuning and actors or dancers are racing about in preparation? I love that bubble of anticipation, and then the house lights go down and magic happens. You’ve brought it all back for me!

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