Jun 29, 2007

In Praise of Imperfection

There is a relatively obscure Bob Dylan song, written and released at beginning of his wrinkly, leather-clad decade horriblis the 1980s, called Every Grain of Sand. Originally released as the final track on the shatteringly mediocre Shot of Love LP, it was a heartfelt if eminently forgettable chronicle of Dylan's (fast fading) born-again Christianity. So far, so unremarkable.

There is, however, another version of the same song - a bootleg recorded in Dylan's own home some time before the studio session. Notwithstanding that the simplicity of this recording suits the song's brittle honesty far better than the more polished final version, at about 2 minutes in something a little bit magical happens. Behind that familiar throaty warble, a dog (Dylan's own dog) begins barking; not loud enough to entirely interrupt the song, but just loud enough to be heard, yapping away occasionally in the background. Now for me there is something about this messy little detail that I find totally enchanting - it brings the whole recording a delicate, almost tangible intimacy. I've seen Dylan live just once, a geriatrically gyrating dot at the other end of plastic arena on the edge of Sheffield - and I felt a thousand miles further away from the great man than I do listening to this recording, and for that reason its one of my absolute favourites.

In theatre, we too often strive for perfection - hoping that it will be alright on the night. As Chris Goode's own recent experience in a flashy spared-no-expense theatre testifies to, improvements in technology only heighten this sense that a smooth show is a good show:
The assumption this whole system is built on is that the ideal is for each performance to resemble the last as exactly as possible; that a brilliant performance is a clean and efficient one that as closely as possible matches some agreed template we determined between us during (or even in advance of) the tech.
Chris rightly identifies that the effect of this is to bottle the show up and thus distance it from that particular group of people on that particular night. There is no give and take. The relationship between the stage and the stalls is stifled by the necessity for a smooth, efficient running. Once again theatre is borrowing all the wrong things from cinema. A successful show relies on a whirring apparatus, once set in motion, to work properly. Without it the show just stops.

And for me this is tragedy because often I find it is at those precise moments that theatre really gets going.

As a performer I was once in a relentlessly dull production of Volpone, playing The Short One in an insufferable comedy double-act between Politic Would-Be and Peregrine. Every night we trudged out to an audience dozing in their seats. Then one night as my friend went to sit down on his bench, it collapsed instantly beneath his weight. He sat for a second on the stage floor, dazed. The audience, as one, sat bolt upright. Without thinking I muttered some appropriately sarcastic put-down and my friend responded with a perfectly pitched "indeed" - nothing particularly clever but full of just the right amount befuddled indignation. It was as if someone had defibrillated the whole production. The next group of actors who were required to use the bench came up with some more inspired silliness. For once, the audience was actually enjoying it. Suddenly here we all were, actors and audience, in a theatre, sharing an utterly unique, utterly theatrical moment.

The same has been true for me as an audience member. When Out of Joint's subterranean Macbeth came to Edinburgh, about a third of the way into the show the power entirely cut. It was pitch black. Suddenly a platoon of techies were waving torches, lighting candles. Just after the show's harrowing murder of the Macduff family someone strode onstage to inform us that the show could not continue because it was now too dangerous without the power. The actors came out onstage to take a bow. And the lights came back. They looked at us. They looked at each other. They laughed. We laughed. They regrouped and redid the scene and carried on to the end. The atmosphere was more powerful than any I have experienced. It is still the most enjoyable Shakespeare production I have ever seen.

For me, theatre is never about convincingly conjuring the illusion of reality. Even an uber-realistic kitchen sink set is fascinating because it is juxtaposed with the oversized velveteen opulence of the auditorium. Consequently, for me, the gaps and flaws and mistakes don't detract from the spectacle. They don't interrupt the smooth running of the apparatus of theatre. Or at least they shouldn't. They should enhance what I feel is the magic of theatre, the sense of being part of a story telling that is fleeting, full of presence and imediacy, and for those reasons utterly memorable. After all, how often is it those shows that ride on the crest of a glorious mistake that really have your heart racing and really live long in the memory?

Which is not to say I'm recommending everyone go out and sabotage their shows for the sake of posterity. Instead its about an attitude to making theatre. If a show can only work one way, it is not theatre. Theatre should be utterly live. It should have room to snake and wiggle. To ride the bumps. To (mis)quote Blackadder - let's be at home to Mr Cock-Up.

1 comment:

FourthAngel said...

I have three words for you:

'Comedy of Errors'

Most certainly home, garden and holiday chateau to Mr Cock-Up. What a shambles...