86. Sorry, theatre peeps, I’m hacking out some context here. I’ve been thinking about the theatre director Peter Brook. Someone quoted him at The Oliviers: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” His book “The Empty Space” is usually the first book someone reads about theatre. It was second I read after “theatre of cruelty”, back when i should’ve been doing my homework. It was and is an important book, of its time re gender pronouns etc, but with a lot that was new and pioneering. It introduced terms to the mainstream of theatre practice – most noticably the word “Space”. You hear that word all the time. The man himself is still going, in Paris, at 92. He survived 2016.
While my brother was being given Attenborough’s Life on Earth six times every Christmas, I was being given “The Empty Space.” It’s a hugely influential expression of the way in which theatre practice has been moving for some years, since before I was born. After the Restoration, Charles II imported the theatre he was used to from France. The puritans had torn down the old playhouses, where the actors and audience shared an intimacy borne from hundreds of years of travelling carts and mysteries. They were all gone. In their stead he erected huge houses of trickery and stagecraft, frames for the genius of the stage engineer Inigo Jones. These imposing proscenium arches pepper The West End with their balconies and vaulted ceilings. His framed theatre allowed women to be actors. Arguably Charles’ predilection for actresses is part of why he went to such lengths to restore the theatre in the first place. He liked actresses very much, most famously Nell Gwynn – his last words were “Let not poor Nellie starve.” That shows that despite being in charge he understood that artists need food. Unlike the fuckers we’ve got now. Nellie didn’t starve. Syphilis got her first..
The theatre of Charles and Inigo instigated such familiar concepts as the fourth wall. I suspect that by modern standards the acting would feel very mannered – there was a language of gesture, posture and tone that was consciously put into play over time by the casts. With so much naturalism across all disciplines now, it would be unfamiliar and likely jarring to see such practice. It stayed much the same though for a few hundred years.
Brook’s book came once television and film had taken root as the providers of the framed fourth wall. Since they took over as the primary visual storytellers, theatre has been reconnecting with its audience. There’s still a lot to be taken from being a fly on the wall in a room with breathing actors. Ballet is an example of why that will never stop being beautiful and moving. Harry Potter another – stagecraft and stage trickery is wonderful to witness and we can do so much with the technology we have. But there are many ways to tell a story, and deeper exploration of the nature of live experience is one of many ways to keep theatre breathing. In London, where space is at a premium, anywhere can be a stage as long as there’s room for Brook’s “someone” to watch that space.
This morning we were in a Christopher Wren crypt in central London talking about money and rules with a woman called Caroline. The crypt is over 400 years old but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to collapse. It’s expensive but it’s dry. Most underground spaces I’ve worked in have been damp enough to make you think you’ve got tuberculosis after a week. This place is so dry you have to drink plenty of water or ravage your voice. I’d prefer carrying around a bottle of water all day to spending every night coughing my lungs out. And it looks great, and works well. I was there once before some years ago for a week of R&D with Baz Productions that led to their inaugural showing of Macbeth. They are a brilliant motivated bunch of friends and collaborators, and our paths frequently cross. From my experience of watching their finished Macbeth, I know that with a load of candles and whatever else we can afford we can turn this spooky crypt into a Viking Mead Hall.
One of the things I love to make is theatre that’s about community and bringing people together. In Christmas Carol it was always my chief joy to see strangers swapping numbers after the show. If we make this right, we can have a Viking show where the audience leaves entertained, replete with mead and meat, and comfortably holding hands with someone they’ve only just met.