Theatre Critic and Journalist

Column: On Heartache

Column: On Heartache

Published in The Stage, 13.11.2014

Brace yourselves: this month, it’s personal. This month, I’m writing about heartache. Hell, it’s my column and I’ll bore you all to tears if I want to…Wait, wait, wait. Come back. I’ll get onto theatre in a bit. Promise.

Ahem. As I was saying: heartache. (I can see you sneaking out…) Back in April, I had my first big break up; the sort of break-up that can, for a while at least, derail your day just like that, with no warning and for no reason; the sort that, for a while, makes everything else seem stupid and small fry; the sort that breaks you for a bit.

This being my first big break-up, I didn’t really know what to do about it. Those feelings, that hopelessness, the drag of one sodding day after another – all of it seemed somehow unshakeable. Like this was life now, and life was worse. Break-ups, eh? Not fun.

Here’s the thing: it fundamentally changed the way I watched theatre. It took over. Almost every time I watched a show, I saw heartache. My eyes and ears sought it out. My brain attuned to it. It just goes to show how little control you’ve got over your audience. You thought you were making a show about the politics of public health? I was probably watching one about the relationship issues of a lovesick hospital porter. If you put on Hamlet, I’d have watched Ophelia.

As a critic, particularly given a critical culture couched in a newspaper tradition, you tend to watch plays and focus on their politics. (Or at least, I do.) In the last six months, however, I’ve found myself honing in on their people. And, you know what? It’s made an enormous difference.

Because faced with something I’d not encountered before, something I didn’t remotely know how to deal with, I found myself gradually getting to grips with it by proxy, watching others go through it onstage. Yes, you sympathise with those brittle, heartbroken humans. You shed a quiet tear in the dark and resist the urge to stand up and shout out in solidarity. (“I’m with you Konstantin Gavrilovich. Feeling your pain.”) But you also realise that you’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through this and you sure as hell won’t be the last. Theatre’s amazing at that. It’s a truly human art-form.

What’s more, though, you learn how to deal with it. I lost count of the number of stuck-in-the-muds I saw onstage – in Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk and Geoff Sobelle’s Object Lesson, in Simon Stone’s take on The Wild Duck and Chris Goode’s Longwave – all of them weighed down by some past pain they couldn’t, for the life of them, shake off and move on from. In time, I swore I wouldn’t follow suit.

There are people that say theatre never really changes anything; that plays don’t make policies. Next time remember that that doesn’t matter – not even a jot. Theatre changes lives and plays can change people – even if only one heart at a time.

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