Friday, January 30, 2009

The Varieties of Theatrical Experience

London's 21st century identity is hodgepodge of a little of everything, and one can find that in its theatre. To wit: two nights ago we attended a performance of "Studies for a Portrait," a relatively new play about an aged, world-famous artist dying of cancer and his boyfriends and ex-boyfriends who are at war with each other over his legacy. It was staged in the White Bear Theatre, which is built into the back of the White Bear pub. The set and lighting is spare, and the focus was on the actors, who are at times only a foot away from the audience, seated 3/4 thrust around the little space.

Last night we attended a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night in the West End, starring Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. The Donmar Theater is lavish, with two balconies and three stories of booths, and opulent decor all around. The staging was relatively simple, the lighting (especially the lightening that suddenly announces the beginning of the play) amazing.

Both of these experiences worked (for the most part; Studies for a Portrait got off to a rough start, in my mind) because they played to their strengths. In an intimate, Rough Theatre, the focus was all on the relationships of the characters and their games of manipulation and power, with the audience's energy right there to feed off of. In a massive space like the Donmar, and with the demands of Twelfth Night specifically, broad comedy was employed, but to tasteful effect; though the audience was acknowledged on occasion, there was no winking, no mugging or beating over the head with the humor.

Both of these kinds of theatre are valid; the key thing is for them to know what they are, and be successful in living up to that. That was what Peter Brook was getting at in The Empty Space all those years ago, and it's nice to see both ends of the spectrum (intimacy and spectacle) being so well-represented.

As far as relevency goes, I'm hoping tonight to see if Les Miserables, "The world's longest running musical," can maintain its own.

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