Theatre Critic and Journalist

When theatre really is different every night

When theatre really is different every night

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 07.06.2010

Defending theatre against film for The Culture Show recently, Miranda Sawyer played the “different every night” card. It’s a phrase trotted out regularly, as if the advantages were inherently obvious. In response, Mark Kermode claimed fondness for the fixity of film: one can have a long-term relationship with a film. Like an old friend, it can be familiar and trustworthy; but, like great literature, it can still yield different experiences each time it’s re-encountered.

The truth is that the average theatregoer – the audience member who sees a production once – doesn’t notice any difference at all. Without the opportunity for comparison, the best they can claim is uniqueness, having witnessed a single event that unfolded in front of a certain group of individuals in a particular place over a specific section of time.

But a great deal of theatre seeks to minimise difference, if not to eradicate it entirely. Watch Les Mis on consecutive evenings and you’re unlikely to notice vast divergence. I’ll stop short of Philip Auslander’s description of franchised productions as mass-producible, but would happily describe the process as inexact replication. If you think that’s limited to mass musicals, look at the precision involved in Women Beware Women‘s composition, particularly in the revolving fifth act, or the delicate details of Katie Mitchell’s Pains of Youth. Once they’re into their stride, many shows will be so finely tuned that – as Lyn Gardner recently wrote – the curtain comes down at almost exactly the same time each night.

However, there is a growing interest in theatre that embraces difference. Here, individual performances go further than being mere variations; not only is each a one-off event, but its status as such is made perceptible. You see the gaps deliberately left open for choice and chance, and accordingly you become aware of what else might have been.

James Graham’s The Man, currently playing at the Finborough theatre, plays its script in a different order each night, depending on the sequence in which different receipts are plucked out of the audience. The effect is greater than a simple shuffling of the information received; it changes the nature of that information itself. Since you can only consider the characters and storylines consecutively, rather than looking at the play in its entirety, your understanding develops in tandem with the performance. The play can just as easily seem centred around a brother’s death as a broken heart.

There is, admittedly, little at risk in The Man. Like Scissor Happy, in which the audience chooses one of four endings, it requires little adjustment around a set script. But consider the work of the Factory, tail-spinning their way through Hamlet with whatever props come to hand, or Improbable’s Lifegame or Cartoon De Salvo’s Hard-Hearted Hannah, which spin entire epics from a single moment. Chris Goode’s Sisters ripped Chekhov’s original open at the seams, allowing a fresh reconfiguration each night; and truly responsive, interactive work such as A Small Town Anywhere (in which audience members take part in the kind of murder mystery where anyone can control the outcome) adapted itself to all manner of possibilities. The threat of total collapse is ever-present – making success all the more thrilling.

More than that, though, it allows the audience to share in the creative process, discovering the piece simultaneously, if not together (something that film, even with DVD extras, can never do). It doesn’t just happen in the moment; it is entirely a product of the moment. That’s got to beat a rerun of Mary Poppins on Channel 4, surely?

Photograph: Finborough Theatre

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *