I recently went to see the show Love Song at the New Ambassadors theatre. The first thing to say about the play is that it was without question, a play. It had a cast of actors performing a script on a proscenium stage, while the audience watched in darkness from the stalls and the circle. There was little remarkable about any of this and the audience left, as it almost always does, relatively unfulfilled.
And yet, there was something different about this show. It did not feel like other shows going on around it. Down the road The Mousetrap is playing, London’s longest running show, the butler still murdering guests night after night. Just round the corner Waiting for Godot has just closed, a show very unlike The Mousetrap in many ways, and yet the two seemed to share something that Love Song did not. They seemed to share, at least, an upbringing. Agatha Christie and Samuel Beckett, though hardly the most natural of bedfellows, shared the experience of theatre as a medium; when they came to write plays, theatre was their frame of reference. And this is where Love Song felt different. The play did not feel comfortable in the theatre, it felt like a stranger, a tourist from somewhere else. And that strange, foreign land from whence it came was apparent before a word had been uttered.
In the first scene a character sits at the back of the stage in silence as the ceiling descends towards him before the lights turn out altogether. In the darkness the words ‘Love Song’ are scrawled, one on top of the other, in 3 feet high letters across the proscenium space. Suddenly the audience is in another darkened space, watching not a stage but a screen – a screen on which the opening credits of a film are beginning. From this moment on the familiar tropes of cinema surround us; the crashing popular music at moments of emotional crescendo, the popular Hollywood stars who, without exception, fill the central roles, the 90 minute running time without an interval, the focused manifestation of the central character’s point of view.
Love Song is a product of the culture of film in which its young creators and its young target audience have grown up. We now live in an era in which film is the dominant artistic medium, its tentacles extending out into every living room. We are drowning in film. For the generation now reaching maturity this has always been the case and they will have undoubtedly, like myself, seen dozens of films (and watched hours of television) before they see a single play. Thus for these theatre makers their frame of reference when coming to write or stage a play has inevitably been irreparably breached by this colossal other medium; consequently cinema’s familiar conventions begin to leak out on to the theatre stage.
Of course, in its early days it was cinema that relied on the conventions of theatre to sustain it; the results where frequently a pale imitation of the older medium. Yet there were those, such as George Melies, who almost instantaneously saw the unique potential of this new medium. It had power to leave the audience spellbound by the laborious construction of seemingly fluent grand visual illusions; a feature of film that is the central foundation of the big Hollywood blockbuster. As these blockbusters demonstrate, in its second century, filmmakers now know their medium well. Cinema has grown up, and is now bigger than anyone could have predicted, while theatre has, comparatively dwindled. Consequently it is important that theatre does not become, as I feel was the case with Love Song, a pale imitation of its younger cousin; staging what are essentially ‘live’ films in the hope of appealing to generations saturated by the screen.
It is notable that George Melies was a magician before he moved to the cinema to stage tricks in a new medium. Theatre, to prosper alongside the cinema, must remember the power of the spectacle of live magic, un-transferable to other mediums. What makes magic stale on the screen is its immediacy, the ephemeral atmosphere in which an illusion takes place – in short, spectre of the live performance and the live performer. Samuel Beckett was more than aware of this; indeed, it is the spectre of the live performer (and what a live performer) that makes Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw’s Happy Days an electrifying, glorious spectacle. On film the production would be almost unbearable.
Let’s hope that surrounded by so much cinema, we can remember what it is that makes theatre so vital.