Theatre is an art form of memory. A night at the theater is a fugitive experience. Players can come back the next night and put on the same show, but no one will ever see it in exactly the same way as you. The texture of your emotions on that occasion, the mood of the world around you, the atmospheric conditions, even: all this floods the space between you and the artists. Actors encounter that cloud of feelings with their own subtle shifts and action shifts, perhaps almost imperceptible. This shaky, delicate and unrepeatable set of infinitely complex reactions will occur not only between the audience and the players, but also from actor to actor and from spectator to spectator. All of which makes a night at the theater completely different from a night watching TV.
For a year, I have told myself that I do not miss theater very much and that this is a good opportunity to watch a lot of television. I’ve allowed myself to miss the music and got to see quite a bit in the fall, including an opera night: I’m still drinking the echo of Christine Rice’s Phaedra at the Royal Opera House; My ears still ring with violinist Alina Ibragimova’s Bach parts, and pianist Steven Osborne’s glass-cut Mozart and Shostakovich, in the little London concert hall on Kings Place, which I can walk to from home. (I was thanking providence, all along, for having the good fortune of having these blessings so close.)
I did not venture to any “straight” theater during the summer. But it is not really true that I did not miss the theater. I started writing this a year after the day I last saw people pretending to be other people on stage. The show was Revisor, a dance version of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Gogol’s The Government Inspector at Sadler’s Wells. Two days before, he had seen Uncle Vanya, led by Ian Rickson, in the West End. You can see both (it turns out they were shows to say goodbye to the theater) on BBC iPlayer. It won’t be the same though, especially since you won’t have to deal with those uncomfortable early elbow bumps and embarrassed clumsiness with hand sanitizer. Innocent times! Later that month came the prime minister’s instruction to avoid theaters. The stages abruptly darkened, some just a couple of hours before the curtain rose. The news also quickly darkened.
Theater is an art form of memory, but my memory of shows tends to be spotty and impressionistic. I interviewed a director last year who told me that his decision to work on the opera could come about at the precise moment when he witnessed a detail in the lighting of a scene, which he remembered precisely, in Richard Jones’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in Cardiff. in 2010. What I remember about that show is feeling like I would live a long time before seeing something so magical again. I also remember Bryn Terfel, like Hans Sachs, buttering bread with a kind of ecstatic concentration. (He buttered the end of the bread and then sliced it, a method I’ve used in his honor and on that show ever since.) The rest is illusory: colors and impressions that long ago became dreamlike, like the ballet sequence. in Powell and Pressburger’s Red Shoes.
Before closing last spring, I was always recharging my theater memories by seeing more. These memories never really settled, as they were being swirled and disturbed by the addition of material. Now there is nothing new to add and everything has stopped. The only thing to do is to immerse yourself in the old memories of the theater.
The shows appear in turn, each producing associations with another. I remember Andrew Scott saying the famous old Hamlet words at the Almeida as if they had just occurred to him; then I remember him reading from the Odyssey too, in a crumbling postal sorting office. I remember the opening scene in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, where the characters sit around a campfire telling stories. I thought, “This is a story about storytelling, and that gun that someone is cradling will go off if the author has read it to Chekhov.”
I remember Clare Higgins as an enslaved Greek queen driven beyond resistance; it became a kind of human wound, like something painted by Francis Bacon. I remember Diana Rigg as Medea, triumphant, magnificent, terrifying, glorified by the corpses of her children, whom she has just murdered. I remember Kate Duchene’s Clytemnestra worrying about suitcases in Katie Mitchell’s Iphigenia at Aulis; she thinks she has brought her daughter to the Greek camp to get married, but the girl, Hattie Morahan, what a voice! – will be sacrificed by her own father to Artemis by a wind to Troy. The wind entered the show not as a breeze but as a gale, a fierce gust that director Rob Icke echoed years later in his Oresteia. I remember Mark Rylance summoning Gog and Magog to a drum in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and shaking and thinking, “The giants are really coming, they’re just around the corner.” For a moment, I absolutely believed it.
This part of the ocean of memories is full of epic myths, but there are other parts to swim in, memories of another theater to examine: some ridiculous, some experimental, some intimate, some terrifying, many sunk in the deep sand of darkness. . because they were very, very boring. I remember things from my childhood: a trip to see the jerky movements of Coppélia: a dancer posing as an automaton in the power of her teacher, which was unsettling in ways I couldn’t later analyze; I remember, too, being so vehemently annoyed by Giselle’s negligence on the part of her hideous seductive prince that I told the adults who had kindly brought me that I was do not ENJOYING IT.
I remember the coach trip from school to Stratford for Niamh Cusack and Sean Bean in Romeo and Juliet, the first time it seemed that theater could be sexy; I remember Juliet Stevenson addressing the audience as Rosalind in the epilogue to How You Like It, and experiencing Shakespeare’s delightful gender confusion for the first time. Even further back, I must have been seven, there’s Jon Pertwee, gorgeously warty and scarecrow-haired, at Worzel Gummidge in County Birmingham (A Stubbs was Aunt Sally, with bright, tender cheeks and a charming smile).
It’s strange to think that this remembered landscape begins with Worzel Gummidge and ends with poor Sonya’s heartbreaking resolve that Vanya live life, painful as it may be, and endure it. I leave all these memories behind and realize the enchanting life I have led, the landscape of wonders that I have to admire, however distorted and ruined by time. It’s enough. And yet there must be more, and soon.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism