Monday, 28 October 2013

Theatrical determinism

By coincidence, the two plays I have seen in the last two or three weeks have shared the same structural feature. The action of we see in the play itself is largely determined by events which have taken place before it begins and about which we, the audience, slowly learn. (Perhaps relatedly, both were also set within a day and both staged in the round with a single set. All we seem to need is a time and space for talk.)

In Arthur Miller's 'All my sons' (at the Royal Exchange, Manchester), there is a very strong sense of fate (Fate!) playing with the pretensions to freedom of the characters' actions now. It verges on a pastiche of a Greek tragedy. The past even sends a letter to the present day to confound an attempt by one character (and perhaps we almost wish it too) to wriggle out of what has been previously set up.

In Eugene O'Nealls 'Long day's journey into night' (at the Bolton Octogon), there was less of a sense of the past playing havoc with the present as of the characters being unwilling to leave the past alone. Aside from the issue of the younger son's impending diagnosis, the forces of the play are endogenous rather than exogenous. They talk themselves into despair. Ironically in a play which lasted, in this production, 3 hours and 15 minutes, the most striking refrain was the other characters beseeching the mother figure, Mary Tyrone (played by Margot Leicester as someone who looped the start of the next sentence to the end of her previous one), to "stop talking". Indeed.

But it is distinctly theatrical, by contrast with most films, to have the sense that we are witnessing not the action of the play itself but merely it's aftermath. The action is long over before the stage lights go on.