Actors in theatre frequently allow us to tiptoe alongside their characters, breathing in and out with their rhythms. They let us discover shared nuances of personality or emotion that make it seem, if only for infinitesimal moments, that we might actually be walking in our own footsteps. Watching a live play is very often an exercise in sheer vicariousness, in a way that is very different from the escapism offered by cinema and its overblown tropes. It is possible to look back at a lifetime of theatre-watching and put together the pieces of our own lives, including incidents that have indeed been experienced but also those merely imagined. A talk I delivered at Pune’s Aksharnandan School last week as part of the Natak Company’s KaanDrushti series allowed me to delve into performance as personal memory. Long before any professional association with theatre, the plays (into the hundreds) that I inveterately watched became things that I did. Their themes sometimes spilled over into real life, but often it was fiction that became truth. We project our lives on the make-believe we consume so ardently, and eventually the lines end up blurred. A delusion of grandeur, perhaps, harmless even, but potent nonetheless.
An understated performance of Peter Gill’s The York Realist at London’s Strand Theatre (now the Novello) circa 2003 served up two moments of transfiguring beauty (of what I can remember). A son returns from his mother’s funeral, and sits brooding at the true-to-life kitchen, a little worse for wear but homely. Caring for her had tied him down, but her passing can hardly give him wings. A country upbringing and conditioning cannot be wished away in a trice. Suddenly, the mother re-enters the space, the scene is instantly bathed in warmer hues, the expression on his face changes in a flicker. This is a play full of flashbacks. Later, at the curtain call, it is almost miraculous, the manner in which the actors drop their characters. You can ‘see’ imaginary masks slump to the floor like sloughed-off skin. And in life, when in thrall to a revelatory moment, moving from one state to another is as seamless a transition. For instance, while playing football with colleagues in Stockton-on-Tees, I was suddenly acutely aware of not feeling alienated in a foreign land any more. I immediately remembered the transition in The York Realist, now my own.
A walking expedition off the beaten track led to the chance discovery of Lung Ha’s Theatre Company’s Arlecchino’s Revenge at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007. In it, a cheese factory worker banished by an evil overlord is taken in by a Commedia dell’arte troupe, which affords him the disguise (that of stock character Arlecchino) that would best serve his vengeance. The performances of the large ensemble seemed particularly stylised, but there was a disarming breeziness to the actors’ turns which was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was two hours of sheer joy. Of course, if I had read the flyer, I would’ve known that the cast consisted almost entirely of people with learning disabilities. The artistic affectation I so admired was perhaps just their own incandescent spirits untouched by artifice, but for all that, it took nothing away from their ‘virtuosity of being’ that evening.
At the same venue, perhaps that very week, I caught the stage adaptation of Robin Jenkins’ 1979 novel Fergus Lamont, a work I wasn’t familiar with. It was a rags-to-riches tale that followed a man from a humble background determined to claim a noble heritage for himself. The hollowness of a person’s heart is difficult to effectively convey on stage, given the frenetic (and exhilarating) pace with which a handful of actors essayed multiple roles across gender, age or physical infirmity, equipped with speech slurs, corsets and the feigned voices of children. An inventive roster of props worked with surprising precision to convey moods, moments in time, period flavour, emotion, even the murmur in the dilettante’s heart.
The failure of the actor was the failure of the man. The actor dispensed with heroic trappings and his Fergus was the perfect foil to all those who fell on either side of the class divide. Bestride both those legions, he faltered in comic fashion, not gallantly, but not entirely in disaster either. So the failure of the man becomes the triumph of the actor. It appeared to capture, in one fell swoop, the aspirational mindset I was all too familiar with.
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