Sunday, 19 June 2011

The gap between actors and characters

Stuck in a gap between trains home, Gloria and I popped into the Forum and fell to discussing being in the audience of live events. She described listening to a difficult Beethoven piano concerto – it may have been the Emperor – and taking some pleasure in the thrill of the achievement of playing it itself: of getting through it correctly (whatever else would also be involved). I can understand that as an issue but not an issue for pleasure. As soon as there’s any doubt about technical competency (or in the case she was describing, the ratio of it to difficulty), my pleasure drops. And, as part of the same attitude, Gloria suggested that were something to go wrong, she’d want to hear the piece through again. A perfect one off achievement is key. That latter thought I share.

By contrast, a few years ago I saw an RSC production at the Swan, possibly a history, in which suddenly the characters / actors in their regal garb were joined, disorientatingly, by a woman in jeans and a headset who told us that a member of the audience had suffered some sort of seizure and there would be a short break while the paramedics carried him out and off to hospital. A couple of minutes later, the actors resumed, picking things up from just before the interruption. Aesthetically, however, the interruption didn’t bother me at all.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen a few contrasting performances. Since the Jacobi Lear in Glasgow, there’s been a play about Fred Dibnah at the Bolton Octogan (an explanation of the cultural phenomenon on which the play was based to anyone not living in the UK in the 1980s would require the full resources of Travisian occasionalism); The Price at the Lancaster Round (£5 standing on the stormiest of nights; and another play in which the first act serves no obvious plot function but rather, causally, prepares the audience to be able to hear the second half correctly); and Dunsinane in Edinburgh (an oddly balanced play but with a smashing performance by Siobhan Redmond; easier to see in Edinburgh to have the mocking humour defused by the laughter of a largely Scottish audience). In thinking critically about the plays and performances, I realise that I have an oddly shifting gestalt experience of the realm of acting and the realm of character. I watch plays without a full suspension of disbelief. And hence no more than momentary disruption if there is an unscheduled break in the action: if contingencies intervene.

By contrast, in for example watching good films, my attitude to the actors is as to their characters. Hence a kind of bodily anxiety for the fate in No Country for Old Men of Carla Jean Moss at the end. But there’s no problem in watching Darrell D'Silva and Katie Stephens in the RSC Antony and Cleopatra (pictured) earlier this year and seeing them performing their characters. There doesn’t seem to be a gap between actor and role but there is a distinction. Perhaps it is – to hint at the familiar issue of cover versions – because the performance is an instance of a universal: a dated particular which instantiates a play to which I can return. On the night, we simply get what happens on that night with the actors responding, including, possibly, to audience members having attacks.

I think I would have the same attitude to popular forms of music but not, eg., the Emperor. Perhaps because it is part of the craft of jazz, say, that contingency is embraced and that includes the local facts of the night it is. By contrast, I can’t shake the idea that one’s attitude to classical music is sub specie aeternitatis.