Column: On Auditoria
Published in The Stage, 18.09.2014
Once upon a time, if a director wanted to stage Hamlet, they had only one question to ask: “Who?” At some point, another arose: “Why?” Nowadays, there’s a third as well: “How?”
Over the last decade, the possibilities of stagecraft have exploded. Theatre is no longer confined to actual theatres. Site-specific shows and pop-up spaces have become, if not the norm, then certainly routine enough to pass without comment, making the humble auditorium just one option among many.
If it remains the default choice – and, in fairness, it probably does – that’s largely because an empty auditorium cries out to be filled. If a major theatre stages a large-scale off-site production, you’d expect something else to play on its main stage simultaneously. Left empty, a theatre looks like a glaring waste of space.
However, if using a theatre space has become a choice, it changes the way we experience that space. A theatre auditorium is no longer a neutral space – if, indeed, it ever was. Its connotations and conventions have become ultra-visible and choosing to stage a show in such a space means choosing to embrace or engage with those conventions and connotations.
Audiences are aware of them as never before. We won’t overlook them as once we might have done. As an example, think of the curtain: once default, a standard signal of starting, the curtain has become a concrete artistic choice. Where once audiences would have ignored it, now we can’t but notice it and read it as a choice. What was insignificant has become significant.
The same holds true across theatre auditoria. They are loaded spaces and directors must start thinking of them as such. A production on a stage, in a theatre auditorium, is itself a site-specific production. It’s just that the site is a theatre.
All of which is ushering in a fascinating, sophisticated new vocabulary: one that uses the language of theatre to create meaning and metaphor. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is particularly fluent. Think of Little Revolution at the Almeida: the way he ‘stages’ the riot in the foyer, so we, the audience, aren’t privy to or part of it; the way he leaves the tech store open for anyone to help themselves. Or, in Edward II at the National, his starting Kyle Soller’s modern-dress Gaveston sat in the stalls, very much one of us, against the rebels Baldock and Spencer trooping on from the actual roof of NT itself, outsiders from the off.
Elsewhere, look at Sean Holmes raising the iron in Caroline Bird’s Chamber Piece to reveal that we, sat onstage, were being watched all along, or the way Carrie Cracknell had Andrew Scott throw open a loading door in Birdland, as if his rock-god superstar was threatening to leave the world of the play once and for all.
What makes all of this so thrilling is that it’s real. There’s no pretence about is. It’s the very opposite of a painted backdrop. And it’s all the more robust for that.