On Dramatic Mishaps and Mobile Phone Misuse in the Theatre…

Last night I went to see Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, a re-location of Strindberg’s play to contemporary South Africa. I found things to admire in the production: there was some beautiful lighting, intricate sound design, and two very passionate performances by the lead actors Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje.

But for reasons that had very little to do with the production itself, I found it difficult to get into the play.

One explanation is that there were a couple of distracting mishaps early in the performance. About ten minutes in, Cronje, the actor playing Miss Julie, knocked a bottle of wine over, spilling it on a table that was clearly intended to be used for much of the rest of the performance (we’ve all seen plays like this, where a table becomes a kind of stage within the stage – I often see this in productions of Playboy of the Western World, for instance).

I knew that Julie was going to be sitting and lying on the table very soon – and that there was no way she was going to be able to do so without having to remark upon the big pool of wine that would be staining her dress, etc. So they needed to find a way to clean up the mess, quickly.

Normally you’d expect a performer to  improvise a way out of this kind of problem, but the power dynamics in the play made that very difficult. As in the Strindberg original Julie occupies a much more powerful position in the social hierarchy than John (her father’s servant) does. But because she needs something from him – emotional support, attention, physical comfort – he also has power over her. The play thus becomes an extended game for control between them. If he uses his physical strength against her, she will wound herself in return – thus attacking his own sense of being a protector of women, and thus attacking his masculinity. If she uses racist epithets against him, he withdraws his attention from her, showing her powerlessness – and the powerlessness of her words. Her tenderness is matched with his violence, her bitterness with his vulnerability. Both in script and movement, these exchanges are intricately choreographed.

In this kind of arrangement, the question of who is going to clean up the spilled wine is far from neutral. Julie would never clean up her own mess – but John will be very reluctant to reinforce her sense that she is the master and he the servant.

In the end, the actor playing John (Bongile Mantsai) cleaned up the mess.

A few minutes later, a worse problem arose. The table was now clean, and John had passionately thrown Julie onto it. In doing so, he knocked one of two wine glasses over; it rolled off the table and hit the floor. Normally in the theatre, you’d expect to hear a dull thud, followed by a bounce – everyone uses plastic glasses on stage, don’t they? But here the glass smashed loudly, sending large shards all around the radius of the table.

Neither actor said anything.

Immediately my attention turned to the fact that the performer playing Julie was in her bare feet. Her movements were stylised, often dance-like; she’d already jumped from and onto the table several times  – and had also been pushed and thrown around by John, so often was sent to parts of the stage without knowing exactly where she was going. At that moment, I wondered if she was aware that there was a huge chunk of glass just below the place where her foot was swinging from the table.

Again the problems of power impeded the solution of this problem – neither character could credibly clean up the mess, so neither actor seemed able to find a way to improvise a response to it.

The glass remained on the floor for the next 15 minutes or so. At one point, the two leads each grabbed particularly big shards and carried them towards a bin. At another, the actor playing John’s mother managed to sweep up some of the glass. But for most of the rest of the performance, the actors were trying to discreetly to kick glass out of the way, under the table, or off the performance area.

They key problem when something goes wrong on stage is this – the audience has to believe that the character has solved the problem, and not that the actor has solved the problem. And here this play is so tightly and intricately managed, that there was no space for the characters to fix things. So the illusion kept breaking down, at least for me.

I can’t say with certainty that the shards were made of glass, and of course have to make clear that I am only reporting how things seemed to me from Row F in the theatre.

But I found myself suffering throughout the performance from a bad dose of Eldest Child Syndrome. This is something that a lot of my fellow academics are plagued by: an ability to see a problem, coupled with a fear that if you don’t solve it, no-one else will. So every time Julie ran, jumped or walked towards a particularly big chunk of glass, I found myself imagining her being cut, the show being called to a halt, and the actress sent off for stitches and shots to Casualty. Instead of thinking about the play, I was wondering why a stage manager didn’t interrupt the performance, or why the actors didn’t just improvise a line that involved going backstage to get a dust-pan and brush.

In the end, of course, nothing at all happened. Cronje was fine. So all my attention to this issue was proven misplaced and inappropriate.

Such is the sad fate of people with Eldest Child Syndrome.

Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa in Mies Julie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

I was also distracted by a domestic drama being played out in the row in front of me. As the lights went down at the start, I noticed the guy in front of me was busily texting on his phone. His wife or girlfriend (they were a young couple – late 20s, early 30s) glared at him to put the phone away, but he kept texting for the first five minutes of the performance, much of which was played out in the aisles of the auditorium, as the actors walked from the back of the theatre on to the stage.

Periodically the man’s phone would give three bright flashes which illuminated a surprisingly large space in the auditorium: this was another text message coming in. His partner asked him to stop a few times. He snuggled up to her shoulder after one request, smiling at her – she rolled her eyes, and he returned to his phone.

He clearly didn’t have much interest in the play, or in his companion’s request that he stop distracting her and everyone else around him.

Amusingly, though, once the play was over the guy was one of the first people on his feet to give it a standing ovation.

This kind of bad behaviour can happen in theatres everywhere, on any day of the week. But I’m always a little surprised when I see it happening on a Saturday night. While of course the vast majority of audience members are engaged and respectful of each other, it’s ironic that the night for which tickets are most expensive seems to attract a small number of customers who place very little value on what they are seeing.

I don’t want that comment to seem sanctimonious, but I did find quite funny the contrast between the male/female relationship being played out on stage and the male/female dynamic in the row in front of us.

So I found it quite difficult to give myself up fully to MIes Julie. I hope this doesn’t seem in any way disrespectful to the performers or play: to use the cliché, it’s not them, it’s me.

But the events of last night remind me again of how one’s experience of theatre is so frequently conditioned and influenced by the most arbitrary things: where you’re sitting, when you go, what you had to eat beforehand, how tired or energetic you’re feeling, who is sitting near you, and so on.

And of course accidents happen in the theatre and on the stage all the time: I’ve been at shows where people have collapsed or been taken ill, and I remember once being at the Abbey (before it was renovated) and watching a bulb fall from its ceiling and crashing maybe 60 feet to the floor below, just missing one of the people seated on the aisle.  The show (Hugh Leonard’s A Life, if I remember correctly) went on regardless.

I think this experience shows one of the major methodological problems with reviewing plays (not that I was reviewing the play last night – I was there entirely for personal enjoyment). My experience of Mies Julie last night was overwhelmingly influenced by factors that were unique to me, and unique to that particular time and place. But isn’t that true for everyone who sees a play, whenever they see it? And aren’t there always little mishaps, most of which are less visible than the ones I saw last night – missed lines, misplaced props, phones going off in the auditorium, and so on?

In other words, last night reinforced to me that it’s impossible to go to the theatre and have anything other than a  subjective reaction to what you see. Of course professional critics are obliged to strive towards objectivity, but they have to strive towards it because it’s not something they’ll ever achieve.

As for Mies Julie, it got a standing ovation last night, and has been widely praised by (almost) everyone who saw it. Clearly my reactions to it mean that I missed out on something special.

That said, so did the man with the mobile phone.

What Makes Stephen Brennan a Great Actor? – Thoughts on Halcyon Days

Last night I went to see Deirdre Kinahan’s Halycon Days at the Town Hall in Galway. It’s playing until Saturday and is well worth going to if you’re in that part of the country.

The audience, as sometimes happens on Tuesdays in theatres, was a bit chatty. This can happen in any theatre, really. You’ll get people who give a running commentary on the action (“Oh Jesus, look what he’s after doing!”). And then you get some who gently mock the dialogue or the characters, as happened last night when in the fourth scene one of the actors moved a cup of tea poured in the first scene – prompting one person behind me to whisper to her companion “your tea has gone cold mister!” And then of course you get people who comment between scenes – “what do you think”, “that was good”, etc.

None of this really bothered me – Halcyon Days is the kind of play that puts people at their ease and involves the audience thoroughly from the start, so to a certain extent people were responding as they would to a good movie on TV.

One of the things that struck me was that after each scene change, I kept hearing different people around me saying the same thing: they were all saying variations of “he’s very good, isn’t he?” to each other. The “he” in question was Stephen Brennan, and it was clear that while many people knew who he was, many others didn’t. But almost everyone was very impressed by him.

I found myself wondering about this. The play is about two people in an old folks’ home, one played by Brennan and the other by Anita Reeves. And I thought both performances were excellent. On a technical level, the two were equally good – and I thought both parts were equally well written. Yet it was Brennan’s performance that the audience kept talking about. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Reeves’ performance – quite the opposite. But there was just something about Brennan that people kept responding to.

This experience emphasised to me that it’s very difficult to define what makes a great actor great. In the Dublin theatre scene at the moment, I find myself consistently being impressed by the performances of Denis Conway, Declan Conlon and Owen Roe, to give just three examples of male performers. But while they have all given ‘great’ performances during the last 10-15 years, they are not all ‘great’ in the same way. In fact, they are very different from each other: Roe and Conway have both played the Irishman in The Gigli Concert, for example – and while I was astonished by both performances, they were also very different from each other. And one of the best performances I’ve seen on a Dublin stage in the last decade was Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Arturo Ui at the Abbey a few years ago. And what made it great is that the only person who could have played that part that way was Vaughan-Lawlor himself.

So in thinking about Brennan’s performance last night, I can point to things that seemed admirable. I admired the physical discipline that allowed his character to seem about 20-30 years older than Brennan is himself. He also showed that the character’s apparent infirmity was partly based on fear rather than any genuine physical problem – and he did this by allowing the character sometimes to lose his self-consciousness and move without thinking. And there were just some nice details: for instance, he wore pants that seemed just slightly too big for him, so we had the sense of his character becoming thinner, fading away slightly. Some of this of course is the work of the playwright, director and designers too. Yet the audience kept talking about how good Brennan was.

He has, I think, been great in many performances, but there are three that really stand out for me.

One is his performance of Hamlet, in a mid-1980s Abbey production directed by Michael Bogdanov. I was too young to go at the time but have watched it on video, and was very struck by the dignity that Brennan gave his Hamlet in what was otherwise a (deliberately) chaotic production. At the time of watching the video, I jotted down a note saying that ‘his movements seem deeply felt’. That phrase doesn’t make much sense, I suppose, but what I meant by it was that Brennan didn’t actually need to say anything to communicate Hamlet’s thoughts – they were evident in whether he chose to stand up straight or not, in how he held his head, in the determination and pace of his steps, and so on. And I also liked that he delivered the words in his own accent: that doesn’t happen often enough in Ireland, even now.

Another that I remember very vividly is his part in the second play in Nancy Harris’s No Romance, which appeared at the Peacock a couple of years ago. That production involved three inter-linking but separate plays. The first part was good, but among the people I chatted with at the interval there was a definite sense that we weren’t sure how things would go for the rest of the production: there was promise there but also a few problems. Then Stephen Brennan came out in the second play and within five minutes of his appearance, there was a definite sense that the audience had forgotten their hesitation and were now fully involved in what they were seeing. This was probably because Brennan was so funny, brilliantly capturing the self-loathing and self-deception of a feckless middle-aged man in a funeral parlour. By the time people emerged from the theatre after the third play, there was a definite buzz: a real sense of enthusiasm for the play and for Harris’s future as a writer. And I think a lot of that was due to Stephen Brennan’s performance. That of course was made possible by Nancy Harris’s script (male ineptitude is something she’s especially good at, as evident from her other play Love in a Glass Jar). But I wonder if the play would have been as successful if someone else had played that role.

Finally there was his performance in Conor McPherson’s monologue play Port Authority, which was staged about 10-12 years ago. Brennan played one of three men who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. And in some ways he had the toughest job because his character was the least likeable, and his story the least credible (in the sense that it was so unbelievable it actually rang true).

On the night I saw the play in the Gate, there was a woman in the audience who had a very distinctive laugh. Whenever one of the actors cracked a joke, the audience would laugh – including the woman with the funny laugh – and so then the audience would laugh again at the woman’s laugh. So many of the jokes were generating two bouts of laughter. The other actors didn’t really pay much attention to this (it wouldn’t have suited their characters) but Brennan started to work around the woman’s laugh – timing his jokes around it and at one stage improvising a simple “I know” in response to her. It was as if he was saying that only a character as feckless as he was could have wound up in a theatre being laughed at by someone like her. This wasn’t in any way mean-spirited: there was actually a moment of identification between the woman’s discomfort and Brennan’s character’s perpetual state of self-loathing.

What made that impressive is that Brennan’s actions – far from being a crowd-pleasing breaking of the fourth wall – actually made the play work more fully. McPherson’s stage direction in Port Authority is that the action ‘takes place in a theatre’. That meant that the characters are actually talking to us – so Brennan’s responsiveness was entirely appropriate. And it also made sense in terms of his character – who had enough self-knowledge to know how ridiculous he was to other people (including the audience) but not enough awareness to actually change.

A lot of what I am describing is the craft of acting. And I’m also, I think, writing about the art of acting too, which (to generalise) happens when the actor gives something of himself or herself to a role, at once making it individualised (we believe this is a real person) and universalised (we believe that these feelings or experiences could be ours, at least potentially). I think Brennan does both of those things very well: his Hamlet is not necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the more memorable because it was different from any of the others. No-one but Brennan could have played the role that way. In contrast, most of the other Hamlets I’ve seen tend to blend into each other.

But I’m also trying to describe one of the things that makes a stage actor different from a film actor. Brennan has an extraordinary ability to listen to and thus to guide an audience. (Rosaleen Linehan is also brilliant in this respect.) He knows when to withhold a line and when to give it, when to drop the tone of his voice to fill a space made empty by audience inattention or some distraction in the auditorium, and when to hold back on the expression of a character’s emotions. I think people nowadays tend to see him as a comic actor, and while it is certainly true that he is very funny, he does many other things very well too.

I don’t want to romanticise acting in stating all of this. But I do think we could do with more writing about acting and actors in this country – about how they do what they do, about the decisions they make from one night to the next, about why audiences will feel compelled to whisper to each other during scene changes that someone was good. I’ve been thinking about what is meant by those whispered ‘isn’t he’s goods’. Do they represent surprise? Appreciation? Delight? I don’t know. But I see this happen all the time when Brennan is on stage, and I’m not sure how to describe what he does – how to record it, if it can be recorded.

I’m struck by this issue every time I read a review and see performances described as ‘compelling’, or as a ‘tour de force’. I think these are words that reviewers or academics use when they don’t actually know how to describe what they are seeing. For instance, I’ve called both Reeves and Brennan ‘excellent’ in this post but that word doesn’t really say anything about how they do what they do, how and why it works, and what makes Reeves excellent in ways that Brennan is not – and vice versa

And finally… the play itself is enjoyable, and it’s great to see Deirdre Kinahan doing  well: there’s a definite sense at the moment that her time has come. I’m going to be interviewing her on Friday at the Synge Summer School (together with Mark O’Rowe and Owen McCafferty) and am looking forward to that a lot.

One other observation I had is that a lot of Irish writers have plays that in some way tackle dementia – Bailegangaire, Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s Aristocrats, Morna Regan’s Midden, and quite a few others. This underlines for me the way that Irish writers remain very focussed on memory, and how they see memory as metaphor for the construction of a character’s identity.

But that’s another topic.