Saturday, 28 July 2007

On Ambiguity

When we did Shiver at Theatre503 earlier this year, I was staggered by the range of interpretations audience members brought to it, even at the simple level of plot. Plot is usually the one thing designed to be unambiguously understood, but I was quite pleased. I had my own interpretation, but in directing it I was careful not to cancel out two or three other possibilities of which I was aware. As a result, people came up with all sorts of crackpot theories. It was excellent. Let me tell you why.

The play turns on the arrival of Jacob on the doorstep of Christina one summer evening. She hasn't seen or heard from him for seventeen years, so this sudden descent on her threshold comes as a bit of a shock. And the last time she saw him, she left him for dead. So there are three obvious possibilities right from the outset: a) it's really him; b) he really died and this is an imposter; and c) he really died and this is his ghost. The tricky structure of the piece, in which the action occasionally stops and rewinds to a slightly earlier point, before progressing in a different direction, helps to retain all these possibilities and adds a further level of ambiguity at the level of what's actually going on.

For me and the actors, the truth was unambigously answer a), but we had terrific fun in rehearsals finding ways of maintaining that line consistently while not doing anything that would rebut those drawn to b) or c). Because of course you can't play "ambiguous", you have to play something definite. That something is, in Max Stafford Clark's terms, a series of actions or intentions - to provoke, to remind, to seduce - none of which necessarily give definite answers to the question about what's going on. (One day I'll post more fully on my rehearsal process. For the moment let me say that I emphatically don't, a la MSC, spend a fortnight sitting round a table, actioning. Nonetheless, his ideas can be extremely useful even if, as here, they're nothing more than shorthand.)

More often than not, whatever action an actor is playing will give a subtext that can either enrich or traduce the piece, depending on whether the action is well-chosen. But in Shiver, the plot became the subtext and the subtext became the plot, creating (at its best) a very powerful and productive atmosphere of uncertainty in a piece heavily concerned with memory, its retention and repression. And so uncertainty about precisely what was happening led (at its best) to meditations on the reliability of our perceptions, our memories and the idea that there might be a truth of which we can get to the bottom. None of them new ideas, perhaps, but approached in new ways and resulting in new conversations in the bar afterwards. That's why it was excellent.

But there was a slight problem: it wasn't much fun. Although the characters were likeable and thoroughly three-dimensional the whole carapace tended to get in the way a bit, making the piece seem cold and lacking a point of entry for the audience. There was some fun in there, but people were concentrating so hard on the ideas and the atmosphere that they didn't tend to pick up on it. Some didn't mind at all, but others did and I was one of them. I don't for a moment believe theatre has to be fun, but I do believe it has to let its audience in. My current way in of choice is fun. What happens once the audience are in is another matter.

With Man Across the Way, we also have a thread of ambiguity, but not as driving force, rather as central question, or rather, several questions - about the identity and status of the eponymous "man". Oh, all right, since you're so nice to me I'll tell you. It's not as if the publicity hasn't already. The man may or may not have been involved in a major terrorist attack on the city of Glasgow (much bigger than the recent one which suddenly made the piece - which was written before anyone had heard of John Smeaton - eerily topical). I hope we don't close down either possibility. But we've discovered that the best ways to keep both balls in the air also happen to be the best ways of dynamising the scenes in which he appears: ie, making him tough-willed, almost bolshy, in his exchanges with the cops. So that's handy.

Ideally, then, when it's working, the piece will cause a bit of trouble for the left's easy demonisation of the police and easy sympathy for those bullied by them. I'm not saying I don't think the police are a bunch of fascist bastards, I'm just saying it's not quite that simple. And it's not as if the show comes down firmly on the side of the police and argues vociferously for the extension of maximum detention periods to ninety days. Au contraire. Like all good plays, it gets in between the cracks in everyone's arguments and tries to create room for itself. And at the centre of that process is the fact that we, the public, very often don't know. We don't know why the police raid this house or that bookshop; we don't know why they pick up this doctor or that engineer. We don't know. They probably have their reasons, but are they good enough?

It also has jokes. Alright, "jokes" is probably a bit strong (who can think of plays with actual jokes in? Dennis Kelly's After the End springs to mind; what else?), but there are a few good laughs, which come mostly in scenes or on lines which aren't at all ambiguous. I'm realising that ambiguity is not particularly good at creating laughter; it creates a cerebral atmosphere of suspension that earth-bound laughter disappears beneath. Ambiguity can't descend to laughter - but laughter can ascend to ambiguity. The politics of Can of Worms are completely unambiguous, but the laughter becomes increasingly troubling as the piece progresses. Not being a clown show, Man Across the Way dabbles less in the dark art of laughter (I'm still holding back on the Harry Potter references) but when it does it is often of a similarly Janus-faced nature.

I worry that talking too much about what I'm trying to achieve will spoil the shows. Please forget everything I've written when you enter the theatre. Obliviate!


Andrew Haydon said...

"I don't for a moment believe theatre has to be fun, but I do believe it has to let its audience in. My current way in of choice is fun."

You are Anthony Neilson and I claim my five pounds.

danbye said...

Having only seen one of his shows, I find it difficult to comment. But I did think it was fun. I particularly enjoyed the Black and White Minstrels singing a song entitled "what a bunch of cunts" about BT Call Minder or some such. Not sure how acute or enduring that made the show, but hell, it sure was fun.

oe said...

no jokes? no JOKES? i'm hurt, i really, really am. but not as much as grae's one time reference to the 'crap jokes' in IZ that he claimed were part of its charm. are you guys only going to be happy when we have a dude in the corner with a drum to hit everytime someone says something? i ask you. sometimes what people say can really WOUND a person, you know? (cue: tear rolling down the cheek from white-faced playwright).

well, i don't think you're that funny, either...

danbye said...

I mean, really.

Andrew Haydon said...

re: "are you guys only going to be happy when we have a dude in the corner with a drum to hit everytime someone says something?"

I refer you to Dan's idea of fun, above, being some Black and White minstrels singing "What a Bunch of Cunts".