Theatre on Saturday night almost resolved me (again) to give it up completely. Although it was the Sovremennik company from Moscow of whom great things were expected -- and evidently, for most of the audience (admittedly including many Russians) delivered -- for me it was the usual theatre stuff -- actors, producers and designers so evidently pleased with themselves; all that fussing around with sets and machinery; that studied standing very still when not part of the action; the long boring passages where someone is having emotions or thoughts. ‘Now pretend to be sad,’ ‘You pretend to snub her’, ‘You pretend to wash the floor’ etc. I found it boring, unmoving, undramatic and predictable -- or, where it wasn’t predictable, of no consequence either way. And primitive, childish, not in a good way.
It simply doesn’t work for me as it’s supposed to -- by contrast with television plays, of which every one that the BBC has done recently has been superb.
I suspect my revulsion is like what the Modernists felt towards conventional representational art and fiction and drama -- see Josipovici label-- an outdated and non-working convention, incapable of conveying anything recognisable as our condition. However, to be fair, this did seem a particularly poor play, Into the Whirlwind, though based on what is said to be a fine memoir by Eugenia Ginzburg about a life marked by unspeakable sufferings and courage under the Soviet system.
Why would you want to try to represent life on a stage with sets when you could do it in a real prison or field or city and record it with a camera? Well, I know why, of course -- it’s precisely for the sake of the non-representational element of expressiveness and abstract order that a built and painted construction can deliver. But that only makes sense if the actions within the set don’t pretend to be real behaviour: the speech should be in verse, recited not acted, perhaps read from the scripts; the actors masked and not in ‘costumes’ but in ordinary clothes or actors’ uniforms analogous to orchestral players’ formal gear. Like oratorio.
I enjoy opera best in versions that are termed ‘semi-staged’: no sets, singers in concert gear standing with the orchestra, a bit of movement, certainly expressiveness in the singing. I was due to see The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartok semi-staged on Thursday - but we’ve had a letter from the Philharmonia Orchestra to say that ‘this is no longer the case’, very disappointing. There was Stravinsky’s Pulcinella at the Proms last year on television, semi-staged, thrilling, hair-raising. Similarly, I like the earliest opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, from an age before they did full staging (I think).
There’s also something about us posh, comfortable people flocking to an expensive production in central London to watch a depiction by other comfortable people of suffering, cruelty and bravery in conditions we’ve never experienced. For some reason film and television don’t seem objectionable in the same way -- not just, presumably, because we don’t dress up for them. But I don’t think that line of objection will stand up if I follow it through.
Or, I may have to conclude, my revulsion may just be a blind spot in me.