Monday, 4 June 2007


To Mike Bartlett's My Child at the Royal Court on Saturday. I was particularly amused to note in the programme that "this is Mike's first play for the stage". Well, I was at university with Mike, I saw two or three of his plays then, and I know of several more since. It's odd that whereas actors' programme entries will say "this is x's professional debut", those of writers seek to deny that any work whatever was done before fully-formed arrival in a blaze of professional glory. More than odd, it's rather damaging to all the young writers who read the entry and are thus permitted to believe in the myth of such an arrival without years of student and amateur hard work before it. Mike has worked incredibly hard and deserves his success, which is built on the solid foundations of having learned the lessons of the seven or eight prior plays, rather than on beginner's luck.

And my word, the boy done good. It's a really terrific piece of work, a real statement by Dominic Cooke's new regime at the Royal Court and a real credit to that regime. Mike is only the second or third playwright in Royal Court history to have his debut play on in the main theatre downstairs (Blasted debuted upstairs, for example, which excessively intimate placing of such an expansive play may have had something to do with its lack of success on its first run), and designer Miriam Buether has been given permission to completely remould the space. Entering the theatre, one steps into an upscaled tube carriage, with some seats around all four sides, but mostly with standing room only. It takes the capacity of the venue down from 500ish to about 200, and with a cast of eight and a running time of only forty minutes, it's quite a big call for an Artistic Director to make.

But my word, does it pay off. The configuration of the space makes for a level of immediacy rare even in the smallest studios: you're right on top of the action, a sensation augmented by the way the actors disconcertingly emerge from among the audience and melt back into the throng throughout the action. The pat logic behind this staging decision is that it shows that everyone is complicit in the events shown - during the climactic fight, for example, one could quite easily step in. I hesitate to endorse this interpretation simply because it sounds so pat. But there's a difference between a play saying, and a play making you experience this feeling of complicity. My Child does the latter.

But it's been a long time since my reviewing days: what is the play about, I hear you cry? It's about a guy who finds himself gradually eased out of his son's life and, at his wits' end, winds up in desperation abducting his son, and hunted down by his ex-wife's tough, rich new husband Karl. It's an incredibly taut, driven piece of work that allows very little time for contemplation of the Alfie sort. But the very end widens the lens just enough. Reflecting, bruised by Karl's beating and Karl's greater success as a man in the contemporary world, on the creed of kindness and selflessness he has inherited from his parents, he is forced to conclude, "it doesn't work. Does it?" It's a blast that coruscates the pretence underlying much of contemporary social morality and it's still ringing in my ears two days later. It's really terrifying, and it's a brilliant piece of work.

And one of the things that enables it to be so successful is the way it strips everything to its bare essentials, with no dramatic waste whatever. The pace is blistering. The staging is a part of this, enabling instantaneous cutting from one scene to another by the simple expedient of starting scenes while one or more characters are still in their place among the audience. No unwieldy scene changes, not even a lighting shift, just straight through without time to blink. It's a stylistic choice that, though incredibly theatrical, owes a tremendous amount to cinema.

My generation and those around it are now so steeped in cinema that it's idiotic for theatremakers to ignore its implications and possibilities for our less influential art form. One of those is quite simply that you can't afford to drop the ball, that if you want scene changes you must find ways of doing them as quickly as can cinema, or you must find ways of filling the gaps. Audiences are used to not blinking, so to give them a chance is to give them a chance to get bored.

Way back in 2005, Bella and the Beautiful Knight's cinematic influence manifested itself in short scenes and quick cuts more stylised than those in My Child but equally rapid. It kept the pace and the intensity right up high and allowed the piece to turn on a sixpence from fury one second to strained silence the next in a way that is certainly possible in a more conventional piece, but not so consistently or so often. This among other things led to people occasionally describing the show as filmic, and certainly it took this aspect of film as a conscious influence. But I think both us and Mike found a version of this technique that made our respective shows distinctively theatrical. How so?

At the risk of overlapping too significantly with Alex Ferguson (no relation)'s most recent post, the significance lies in one of the key differences between theatre and film, although one that has nothing to do with the audience. It's the common sense fact that, if you cut to another scene in film all traces of the previous one remain only in memory, whereas an instantaneous cut in theatre must necessarily contain physical and visual traces of the previous one. The guy in the previous scene who's not in this one can't simply disappear in an instant. So his presence becomes part of the new scene, too; a physical memory, a reminder of the previous scene and a haunting of this one. In Bella we used this very deliberately, having the actor who's not in any given scene actively watching it and powerfully present, only cutting people out with light during monologues. My Child does something similar, to the extent of very often having two scenes going on at once. It's a brilliant theatricalisation of a language borrowed from film. Because in the theatre, we can be in two places at once in a way that, as Alex quite rightly says, the concreteness of film forbids.

And we must take that language on board: it's now part of how audiences understand stories. It doesn't reduce theatre to borrow from film. On the contrary, the language of film can be used to augment theatre for contemporary audiences. David Mamet talks about Eisenstein's policy of leaving out all the in-between parts, cutting to the quick. More on this later, but film's great ruthlessness with the chaff is only the beginning of what we can learn.

I had great fun with this on The Apple Harvest in York a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to see if a filmic montage sequence could work in the theatre. The montage is that bit, shortly after the mid-point of the film, where the protagonist is either at his highest or lowest ebb, music plays and we get a sequence of shots of him walking sadly down lonely streets, or joyfully driving a series of expensive cars, or whatever. It's the bit in Karate Kid in the funfair, the bit in Shrek where "Hallelujah" gets played, the suicides sequence in Groundhog Day. In film these bits are often pure emotional candyfloss. But they're useful staging posts and there's no reason they can't be intelligent just because they so often aren't.

So John and I wrote a song broadly in the "Hallelujah" category and made a "dark night of the soul" montage that cut together about eight different short scenes very rapidly. And whereas in film these scenes would rapidly supersede one another, in the theatre we were able to have most of them overlapping, with several running as presences all the way through the sequence and frequently cutting through into whatever else was going on. The traces of all being present in any one part of the whole, it became much richer than these sections ever are on film, an exploration of the creation of atmosphere and the juxtaposition of experience. It was lovely.

And My Child managed to use something from film I've never seen before in the theatre, at least not in quite the same way: the jump cut, that is, a jump ahead in the story that leaves the audience to fill in the gaps. The classic example is: shot of man taking woman by the hand and pulling her up from her chair, followed by shot of man and woman falling along the same plane onto a bed. The audience fills in the whole story in between the meeting and the lovemaking, so the film doesn't need to. This is the bit of Eisenstein Mamet gets so excited about.

In My Child, for example, there's a scene where the man and his son discuss watching a DVD:

CHILD: Let me see it.
MAN: All right. I'll put it on now.
The video comes on.
CHILD: This is shit. It's just a video camera in a cinema.

All the rigamarole of putting in the disc, switching things on, trailers, and all the rest of it, is cut away and we are simply asked to believe that all of this has happened. That's fine. It's not what's interesting or important about the scene, so why should we be shown it? Because that's how it would happen in real life? Well, theatre isn't real life, it's theatre. And by these means My Child tells us a great deal more about real life in its forty minutes than many a two-hour piece of straight-down-the-line naturalism.

There are plenty of other ways in which the theatre can borrow the successful bits of film: the best theatre-makers are always magpies. How do we take on board underscoring, for example, while bearing in mind the demands of our own medium? How do we make rain, or run through the airport, without cheating or resorting to cheap tricks? When watching films, I'm not just looking at what makes for successful film, I'm on the lookout for what I can steal for the theatre.


alexf said...

the whole jump cut thing sounds interesting - how does it work? is there any kind of delineation to mark the jump cut like a sound or lighting cue (as there obviously is in film with the change of shot)?

danbye said...

In Bella I'm not sure I'd consider what we did a jump cut precisely because there's a change of lighting, and an intervening sound cue. In the bit of My Child I'm talking about, there's nothing whatever: the text and the performance simply leaves a very brief gap and implies that in the "real live" version of the play, that gap was larger and was filled with all the mundane stuff I mention. It's astonishingly bold, although the example I give is admittedly relatively banal.

All of this is predicated on my pretty shaky knowledge of film terminology. Perhaps I've got it totally wrong. But I'm not really interested in what it's called so much as whether it's useful.

oe said...

re: theatrical jump-cuts. do you think the same thing applies to FROZEN? if you remember, a character will be monologueing, talking to the audience and then move over and they're in a scene. i quite like this technique, mike certainly uses it more often than lavery, but what it allows the dramatist to do is get rid of that 'opens door and walks on stage' rubbish that you spend too much time writing anyway. but obviously i like it, as i keep doing it. was a bit like that in IZ too, as I remember...

oe said...

i think i'm going to pretend MAN ACROSS THE WAY is my first play 'cos it might make me sound clever. i'm also going to pretend i'm nineteen. or do you think that's going too far?

danbye said...

Yes, you're right about Iz. And now that you mention it, it strikes me that there'll be some of it in Man too. The reason it was something else in Bella, I think, is because it was never quite instant; it was always punctuated. Although admittedly that was a production decision.

You use it differently to Mike in that you always gently acknowledge that it's disconcerting. A character in an Oliver Emanuel play pulled from one scene to another is always slightly disoriented by the experience (always with a parallel reason in the scene itself), nicely allowing that it's a slight wrench for the audience, too. Mike's approach is much more giddying - which serves a different purpose.

Punshon said...

to be honest, I'm not sure it is jump-cutting in Frozen, I think it's rather more like old-fashioned asides. very theatrical rather than filmic, actually - as you say, that's the big difference with theatre, that the actors aren't just disappeared when they aren't participating.

what was difficult was finding a way of doing the 'asides' without it being crap: the other actors have to make it very clear they're not listening, that they're existing in a different frame to the actor speaking to the audience.

how did they used to do asides? can't remember how they did them in the last Shakespeare I went to see, but I generally think they don't quite work when I see them done.

In TV or film if an actor talks directly to camera one can choose to just cut out all the other actors. though I seem to remember in House of Cards often Ian Richardson just turned to the camera when others were around. But maybe that's possible with camera because the shocking & unusual intimacy of looking down the lens effectively isolates us completely from the other characters. In theatre the lights are too often shining in their eyes and they can't actually make contact with the audience.

That's something interesting about My Child, for me - that we were so much involved because lighting and space didn't separate us from the action, and they could so easily have made eye contact with us, but they almost never did. The only time I remember it happening was when the mother went through the audience asking 'have you seen him?' or something like that, and it was the least successful bit of the whole show: we could cope with standing there next to them and having them be part of us as a crowd, but make eye contact with us and suddenly it's embarrassing and difficult.

(sorry, this comment is getting ridiculously long, I'll stop now)

alexf said...

do you really think asides are difficult? i think they're really simple. i don't think it's a question of making anything clear to anyone, it's just playing the action. a talks to the audience. b and c pretend they can't hear them.

if it doesn't work. one of the reasons is because a lot of theatres just aren't set up for this kind of direct address. to make an aside you have to batter down the fourth wall which is rigidly enforced by the pros arch.

danbye said...

I agree with Alex: the problem with a lot of asides, and indeed with that moment in My Child, is not so much that the moments don't work per se, but that the convention of not talking to the audience has been too firmly established - either by the architecture of the space, or by the fact that they've only been doing it when they absolutely have to.

When doing my Shakespeare workshops in January we had great fun playing to the audience the whole time and encouraging a football crowd's level of interaction with the performers. It's more fun for everyone that way and I'm pretty sure that's what it's supposed to be like.

punshon said...

I think asides are difficult in ordinary English theatres where the audience are embarrassed by them and the lights are too brightly in the cast's faces for them to connect with anyone other than the front two rows.

obviously I'm totally in favour of direct address or I wouldn't a) like Shakespeare or b) be married to Dan.