Distractions of the Flesh
Without wanting to take anything away from Jude Law’s favourable reviews, the time has come to focus on his appendage – which, incidentally, is exactly what the West End Whingers found themselves doing on their recent excursion to the Wyndhams Theatre. You see, given the loose linens he wears, Law reveals more of his Danish Prince than most. “While we’re addressing wardrobe,” the Whingers decry, “they really should put Jude in a codpiece or, at least, get him to wear a dancer’s belt under his trousers. From their front row seats, it wasn’t so much not knowing where to look as knowing exactly where not to look. Very distracting.”
I’ll spare you any references to “too, too solid flesh”, but, save to say, bodies onstage can divert focus, particularly by virtue of their sexual properties. No matter how much we protest not to notice, a flash of pants will always catch our attention, if only momentarily. Likewise, the eyes will linger on the breathy heave of a corseted bosom in period costume, the infinite legs of a chorus line or the contours of a muscular torso. Though, as the Whingers’ gripe suggests, we feel that we ought not to sneak a peek, body parts – heads, shoulders, knees and toes – can become focal points on their own aesthetic merits. When they do, we wrench our attention away, as if watching in this way were illicit or guilty. After all, we go to the theatre to see a performance, not a peepshow.
With performance, the usual viewing mode is to look through the physical to that which it implies. We read bodies as opposed to simply taking them in. We see the emotions, motivations and ideas signified more than the bodies themselves. Even with dance or physical theatre, where the body is of far greater primacy, we seek to interpret rather than solely appreciate it. There’s a fundamental opposition at play here: between signified and signifier, between the real and that to which it points.
The truth is, however, that concentration is a simple and fickle thing that cannot be controlled, let alone coerced. In his beautifully commonsense writings on acting, David Mamet observes: “Your concentration is like water. It will always seek its own level – it will always flow to the most interesting thing around.” By virtue of being onstage, it is inevitable that bodies will catch our attention on their own merits. Is this problematic? Does it reduce us from audience to perverts?
The incomparable blogger Chris Goode has extensive form on this subject: “If the most interesting thing on stage is someone’s penis (or breasts or whatever’s your poison), why should I not enjoy looking at it, and thinking about it, and about the actor whose penis it is, and perhaps about my penis, or penises I have known and pass an agreeable and interesting evening in that way?”
Goode’s words stand as a challenge to theatre. They demand that a performance provides something more to override the distraction by empowering the audience to allow their concentration freedom to roam. Or else, theatre-makers must negate the possibility of distraction by making the body both vehicle and subject simultaneously and, therefore, encourage an audience to explore with their eyes. As Goode says: “The most significant thing theatre can do is put a naked person on stage and let you look at them.”
Photograph: Tristram Kenton