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Missing the theatre (the roar of the greasepaint etc)

Last night, I was part of an extended online audience watching Claire Foy and Matt Smith perform live on the empty Old Vic stage in Matthew Warchus’s adapted version of Lungs, the Duncan Macmillan play – adapted because, although already just a two-hander, there needed to be some social-distancing alterations to the staging for our strange Corona times. As I did not see the stage version (despite trying hard to get a ticket last year), I’m not sure how much it had been changed, but I’m guessing this mainly removed the actual on-stage touching and personal closeness, although thankfully it removed none of the emotion nor the sense of physicality between the two of them in my view. 

Each actor was followed by a dedicated camera. The screen was split at all times and in some ways this was a shame because it made the images smaller on my TV. However, this added interest in other ways: spotting when the actors strayed into each other’s camera space, or crossed over each other, or used the two cameras to create interesting shots – for example, of their hands coming together, or of them both lying alongside each other. This was a feature in its own right and made good use of the genre.

Although the streaming was achieved using Zoom, the audience were of course centrally muted and their video cameras disabled so there was no interaction or shared experience. My fellow living-room viewer and I could therefore have discussed the performance throughout, as we might do during a TV show, but I don’t think we said a word, restricting ourselves to laughter or other natural theatre-audience reactions. This was not agreed in advance – it just happened. We allowed ourselves some silent sweet-eating (which I would not do in the theatre although of course many do) and I wore my slippers which felt unusual. I don’t dress up to go to the theatre – at least, not unless there is a particular reason to do so – but this felt ever so slightly disrespectful nonetheless. Our cats were also present, but slept or licked noiselessly throughout.

Do I think this was a good substitute for the real thing? In the absence of there being a ‘real thing’ at present, then yes. As it was live, there was that sense of in-the-moment jeopardy even on screen, although smaller than usual and perhaps with a greater fear of technical glitches than forgotten lines or other on-stage cockups. Most certainly there was a strong emotional feel – the acting was superb, their relationship compelling. I’m sure every bit of the narrative was there and conveyed just as powerfully. The pace was notably different from TV or film and this was transferred impressively to the screen, perhaps even enhanced by some of the shakier moments of camera-work.

I am so glad I saw it. Thank you.


… it was so sad to see the empty auditorium as a backdrop on screen and the pre-recorded audience hubbub was strangely haunting.

I still want to go back to the theatre so much. I don’t know whether it’s the audience itself – I never thought of myself as liking the crowd (will I be able to see over the inevitable huge man in the seat in front? – and I’ve had some odd experiences eg. my West End Weirdo experience), but maybe the sense of being a part of that whole is more powerful than I realised. Being so close to, and in the same space as, the actors – be they famous or starting out, be they funny or heartwarming or alarming or downright nasty; observing close up the workings of the stage-dressing and scene-changing (or planting in Albion at the Almeida); suddenly spotting character entrances from anywhere in the theatre; wondering at effects and shared props (balloons, sprouts!); laughing in the right and wrong places; having to avoid looking at people when overcome with tears; sometimes wondering what on earth other people see in this but sticking there till the end anyway; wondering at the practicalities – from spectacular aerial performances in Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Bridge to that terrifying step-ladder climbing in OV’s EndGame); tiny moments of absolute unscripted hilarity (I have never forgotten John Simm and Adrian Bower’s hysterical corpsing in Elling at Trafalgar Studios) and huge utter silences of a full house in tense or sad scenes; the elation at curtain call (the secret feeling of maybe actually wanting to be up there – oh, to be part of that team); the shuffling out hearing other people’s opinions, and running for the train.

Please don’t let the theatres go dark forever. I know I’m not alone in this. We’ll be back when we can.

How my obsession with theatre was revived


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