“ ’That is not the West’ a man in the audience cries out, as though he were in the play, which, in a way he is; he will always be in it now, no matter where or in what circumstances it is ever performed again.”
The above line, taken from Joseph O’Connor’s recent novel Ghost Light captured what is inherent when discussing the trend in Irish theatre of reproducing our past and great plays and how revisionism and distance in time can reflect an audience and public reaction to a production that is not of its time.
The idea of theatre being a singular and live event is in itself the very appeal and draw for an audience. As an audience member what one witnesses is the creation on stage, before one’s eyes, of a story, a tale or some part of human experience. It dissects, elucidates and bears new insights into the fabric and nature of human interaction. As a play runs from its first flash of idea, a surge from synapse to vision, from mind to page and eventually to stage, the play is immediately set into time and into existence, essentially for posterity.
What can be discerned is that a play can be reproduced and reset but finding and recreating the performance is something far more intrinsic and difficult. To reduce the elements that combine to create the ‘liveness’ of a play, and try to identify and recreate each minute detail would be akin to needing a large hadron collider more at home in CERN. As a theatre nation, we are more than just a bit comfortable with delving into the theatrical archives for inspiration and ideas for works to recreate in our theatres while also contemplating their original meaning and their translation to our time and place.
Boucicault, O’Casey, Keane, Yeats, Behan, Wilde: works by all these past masters have found great acclaim in major reproductions of late on the Irish stage. These writers have cemented their place on the high pedestal of Irish literature owing to the continuing relevance, their content and writing and in so small part to the fact their original productions caused riotous reactions, shock and scandal and endless reaction from audience, media , Church, State and public alike.
In a review of the recent production of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre it was said “If O’Casey took an unflinching look at the new Irish State, the nation didn’t always return his clear gaze. Countless revivals have come to romanticize the penury of tenement Dublin, emphasising salty good humour over harsher struggles and softening the play’s intellectual qualities with accretions of sentimentality.”Outside of its political resonance, the Plough’s debate of Socialist VS Nationalist and its flouting of Church and State ideals are indelibly connected to its performances in 1926, which were met with scandal for the presentation of a prostitute on the National stage and for bringing the tricolor into a public house. For an audience at this or any other play, the role they play is as part of the production and part of the production history. The theatrical space as a whole, the cast, crew and each audience member produce the elements of the final performance that is intrinsic to a singular production.
Recent productions have paid particular attention to the role of the audience. Productions by groups such as Pan Pan and The Company have recently reemphasized the inclusiveness of the theatrical experience, by increasing the theatrical space into digital realms and creating an audience that looked each other in the eye rather than the cast. In New York, Peter Stein’s 12-hour version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons a production that attempts to intermingle spectators and banish isolation. Play goers travel to and from the performance aboard two ferryboats to Governor’s Island and the experience of twelve hours of theatre is surely enough to bring any group of individuals together into a united front.
At the Kilkenny Arts Festival, a piece of theatre by Belgian company Ontroerend Goed entitled The Smile Upon Your Face places the audience in hitherto unexplored realms, bound to a wheelchair, blindfolded and one-on-one with the actor. The singular audience member becomes part of the experience and makes every performance a unique event. The ‘audience’ focuses on experience through a sensory perception previously alien to them as theatre goers. If this work is reproduced in five, ten or twenty years, will it be still be as reactive to an audience and if one was to ‘take part’ a second time, would their experience be reactive to the current time and place in which it is staged? Essentially, can the previous role of the audience live on in future productions?
As Ghost Light elucidates a love story of Synge and his Miss Allgood, the love affair between the audience and the theatre also lives on and is as inherent as any text or stage direction:
“The audience; eating noisily, or drinking or conversing, the little ones wandering about, left to roam by their mothers, and a pedlar straggling in and out as though the show were a fair ground and he moseying the aisles with his ribbons. And by god, you earned their tolerance. If you didn’t, you’d regret it. The audience was always a part of the play. That’s one thing you learned good and hard.”