Theatre Works’ new Covid-safe seating frames the audience rather than the performance. And what’s with the coffee table? Kimberley Twiner reports
I am in a private audience of three, even though there are 25 people in the room. There is perspex to my left, right and in front. I am raised up, looking down onto the performance space. For some reason there is a little coffee table in front of me. I’m not used to watching theatre with a coffee table in front of me.
What are the consequences for the audience and the actors when the fourth wall becomes literal?
I’ve seen two different shows at Glasshouse Theatre Works in the past two weeks, Ring, Ring! by Virtual Waiting Room and And Then She Became a Chair by Michelle Myers. I was curious about what happens to the audience and the shows at this new Covid-safe theatre venue. Theatre Works have placed plastic booths on raised platforms, in the round, or rather – in the rectangle of the space. The performance happens in the middle.
The two shows I saw were both very different in style and execution, but the space caused them similar problems. Firstly, it is visually noisy. I couldn’t use my wide view to take in the imagery because my every view was impeded. At times my view was blurry because the plastic is warped. It’s not a clear vision, it’s like adjusting my eyes when I put on grandma’s glasses. It all became less special.
David Mamet said that the actor’s job is simple: stand where you can be seen and speak so you can be heard. The actor’s job is harder in this space because the view is disturbed and the sound is muffled. This space requires the actors to over-articulate and over-project their voices.
The people best framed are the other audience members. They sit in a neat rectangle with white edging, so even when the space goes to black the white frame still glows a little. Someone over the other side is suddenly my focus because the phone that was sitting on the coffee table has lit up. Fascinating. I ignore the impulse to watch them.
The audience certainly occupies the most dramatic part of the space. There is drama in being escorted to your booth, in walking up the stairs, it’s yours, it’s clear but it’s private, lit with LED lights and the private coffee table.
Ring, Ring! is a five hander though suddenly, at one point, three of them disappear; hang on, no, they have just coincidentally all lined up behind a thick, white joining panel that obscures my view. My irritation begins.
I cannot concentrate because I am distracted by the lights reflecting off the plastic. I have no idea who or what I am meant to be looking at. As an audience member, my quality of attention is split because I have to use energy blocking out the busy-ness of the space. My attention is poor because I don’t feel involved in this event. I feel as if no-one sat in this seat and considered the view that this punter was going to have.
The performers’ bodies are reflected like a house of mirrors onto the plastic. There seems to be a directorial choice in this show never to take a fixed point: ne’er a still point was plotted. So there seemed to be more than five performers moving in the space – more like 20, constantly moving. Constantly. Moving. This space does nothing to help focus a show which already lacks focus.
During this show, the over-stimulation sends me down a rabbit hole of questions about the space. Who is framed best here? Where is my eye drawn to? Where does my eye travel? Why is there a coffee table?
And Then She Became a Chair, a solo show, works better than Ring, Ring! because it has clearly been blocked very specifically to cater for the space. The layout aligned with this show’s overarching throughline of a waiting room, a clinical, hospital-ish kind of theme. Its pre-existing dramaturgy made the viewing experience more acceptable.
In both shows there was next to no face light. I assume that floor lights won’t work in the space because they reflect into the audience’s eyes. Intimacy is lost, which is a tragedy. Especially for Michelle Myers in And Then She Became a Chair, which recounts her story of losing her mother. There was a moment where her eyes happened to catch some light, her head angled in a particular downlight, her eyes sparkling with the splendour of theatre. It was happening!
Butttttttttt, damn it, I realised that the people opposite were missing this gorgeous, vulnerable, naked moment. I longed to view it as a collective. I didn’t want this moment just for myself and my booth (and my coffee table), I wanted this moment to change the world. I felt like a traitor, as if I had stolen something and kept it secret. I longed to view it en masse, in solidarity, front on. I felt the moment slip away.
Performing in the round holds meaning. It can be brilliant and dynamic. When we gather in circles, we get the chance to confront the emotion of the people on the other side of the circle. We join in circles not only to see what happens in the middle, but also to be seen. It’s a familiar set up, sacred, a remnant of archaic times. But this pleasure is taken away from me in this space because I can’t feel the people opposite me – we are separated by two walls, the view is blurry, I’m private and they are private. Even the performance seems private.
After experiencing the almost fly-on-the-wall perspective of And Then She Became a Chair I thought that the space could work for pieces that tend towards performance art. Pieces that are for overt observation: Berlin style, neo-avant-garde events with themes that have a voyeuristic edge to them. Because the performance space is not a stage it doesn’t hold the holiness of the stage. It is trumped by these casual viewing booths. It’s kind of like watching CCTV footage.
For all its good intentions, the Glasshouse’s plastic booths impose a strong theme upon the creative work. Directors, co-devisors and performers putting on shows here need to consider the dramaturgy of this space very carefully. They also have to perform harder, knowing that their playing body needs a 360 degree treatment. They need to dramatically project through solid matter.
My last point: can someone please take the coffee table away? I don’t need to feel comfortable or homey or chillaxed, our phones and beers don’t need an altar. I came here to be rocked by some theatre.
Ring, Ring!, written and directed by Ebony Rattle and Ellen Wiltshire. Costume design by petria hogarth, cinematography by Verity Johnson, sound design by Alex Mraz, performed by Kaya Byrne, Britt Ferry, Shamita Siva, Lia Stark and Maurice Wan. Closed.
And Then She Became a Chair, created and performed by Michelle Myers. Dramaturgy/associate direction/lighting, design by Jahman Davine and sound design Andrew Stark. Closed.
Theatre Works Glasshouse is not wheelchair accessible.