Returning to Theatre

I went to the theatre last night, to see the first live theatre show since the pandemic began… That’s not completely true.

I’m a university lecturer, and so during the pandemic I’ve seen live student work, and I’ve seen online and recorded work, and those are all still ‘shows’. But still this was different. It was a live show to a live audience, in an independent venue, made by someone I don’t know, that I hadn’t seen before… Yet that’s not completely true either.

I had seen the show before, in 2015 at the Edinburgh Festival, long enough ago, for me to forget all the detail, and only remember a general sense of the show. Also, though I’ve never met anyone in the company we have mutual acquaintances.

So I went to the theatre last night, and it was the same, and familiar, a repeat; and entirely new as always.

I took a route that meant I walked 30 minutes to the theatre. I was reminded of when I used to be a student in Bedford, and when I would go to the Bowen West Theatre, where I had some incredibly formative theatre moments. It would take me 30 minutes to get there walking through Bedford.

That theatre is gone now. Demolished, only memory.

And on this slightly muggy Thursday evening in Newbury, threatened rain-clouds had passed, colourful bunting was hanging the length of the high-street, and people were out; About their business, or sat outside bars and restaurants, talking. I wished there was a late-night coffee bar in Newbury. Perhaps there is, I should check. It felt like, almost summer.

I’m telling you all this, as all of this matters, all of this is ‘The Show’. Someone once queried my turn of phrase ‘Show’ to describe, what we so often call ‘The Work’. I don’t mean a ‘Show’ as in light entertainment (No slight to light entertainment), but rather ‘Show’ as in a reveal, as proof of something happening, an intended offering. All of this, is ‘The Show’.

A friend of mine was taught that ‘Theatre starts outside the room’. This is why I’m telling you all this.

At the theatre, the staff are at the door, and I have to ask what to do. Apart from my details, and having an automated temperature scan (which I smile at, through my mask, for no sensible reason other than it feels like having your photo taken), it is the same. I have to ask for my ticket, spell my surname out of habit. I’m offered to go straight in, or to have a drink and sit in the foyer. I’m keen to go in. This is one of my local theatres, the theatre where my Children go to the Panto, where sometimes I see comedians. Tonight I am seeing a one-man, contemporary dance-theatre adaptation of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

The theatre is as it’s always been, except the transparent Perspex sheets between the audience members. There is a set, lighting, some haze and music playing. The theatre’s familiarity and the safety measures are equally reassuring. I’m aware of a tension between nostalgia and the present moment. I take photo of myself sat in my seat, excited to be there, and post it on social media. It’s picked up immediately, and of note by someone who saw the show with me 15 years ago.

I make a few notes on what is happening around me, never without notebook and pen. I sketch the set hurriedly. As I do so, another audience member approaches me from down the aisle. “Are you Robin?” she says, “No sorry” I reply, “I’m looking for a Robin who I was told would be writing in a book”, “I’m sorry, it’s not me”, we laugh and smile through our masks and she returns to her seat. I look around and see no one else with a book. I don’t know if she found him.

I watch the rest of the audience as they come in, I’m keen for the show to have a good audience, I want people to want to come back. I also want to see if anyone I know turns up, but not tonight.

But, everyone who comes in has the same searching look in their eyes. Who is here, how many are here? We did this before of course, but now it carries some urgency for me. It is both an individual and a collective action, are we all here?

The person next to me sits and evaluates the Perspex sheets on either side of them, “I’m sitting in a cupboard” they say, and I tap the divider with my knuckle as a gesture to acknowledge their weirdness. They then say “It was like this in language class”, I’m not exactly sure what they meant.

Then, the performance begins.

There is the performer, Ben, as I remember him. Being himself and acting, dancing and talking. Dancing like a bird while recreating the moment when God created Adam, while shouting at Children, while wearing a flesh coloured uni-tard, while making weird noises to accompany his actions. He is the same person I saw 6 years ago, he is 6 years older, as am I. Each part of the show arrives, and I remember ‘oh yes, this bit’, then I watch it as if I’ve never seen it before. He talks, he dances some more, he is soaked, he is pelted with chick-peas, and blown by the wind. He tells us a story we know and a story we don’t. He tell’s me a story I’ve heard him tell before, but mostly forgotten.

The idea that performance, is always the same/always different, is made crystal clear; Because of time, and space, and history. Six years ago, this was just one show of about five that I saw in one day during a week at the festival. A good show, but just a show. Now my like has moved on, my children are older, and a pandemic is in effect. All of this weighs in on the show. The show is stronger for maturing, and my relation to it enhanced by where I am in life.

Now, Paradise Lost is not just a show that speak to me in terms of subject matter, it is a reintroduction to theatre. Design, Lights, Costume, Performance, Text, Dance, Music, and Puffs of smoke, creation, destruction and transformation, the divine and the all too human. As I watch, I not only think about the show itself, but I daydream and consider my own work, getting inspiration. This is one of my favourite things to do during theatre, to drift alongside a work.

Then at two points during the show the outside world intrudes subtly. There are people are outside the stage doors of the theatre talking, perhaps from the pub next door, drunk, chatting, cackling. This too happens alongside, it is just below the threshold of disturbing the show, enough to be there and throw a breeze of awareness through the performance, that the world outside exists. Then it is gone.

The performance ends, we applaud and whoop and whistle, bows are taken, technicians thanked. We leave and thank the front of house staff. It’s still light outside, people are still out, the bunting is silhouetted against the receding blue sky.

On the walk home I am thinking about writing this, I am thinking about the show, am thinking about ideas for my own work prompted by what I’ve seen, the walk home is quick, light, and full of rapid thoughts.

I had written a blog concerning culture at the start of the lockdowns: I said amongst other things: ‘Culture is also Hope, wishful thinking, the expression of what we do not have, and the summoning of will, for the effort to reach for something we do not have.’

I went to the theatre last night.

Thanks to Lost Dog Dance for their great show ‘Paradise Lost’.

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