You looking at me?
Performance Monkey's blurb claims that theatregoers sit in the dark. Well, not always. In fact, increasingly less often, as site-specific and promenade productions frequently exploit the visible presence of the spectators and implicate them in the show.
None has been more eerie, for me, than Punchdrunk's phantasmagoric Faust in 2006. We crammed beaky white masks over our faces and wandered the corridors and staircases of a disused warehouse as scenes from the Faust legend erupted around us. Even more uncanny than the thrashing, wordless performances was looking up at a crowd of impassive masked faces, knowing that you looked just the same. Were we watching ghostly scenes, close as breath but separated from them? Or were we ourselves the phantoms?
Less invasively, it's impossible to be unaware of the audience at Shakespeare's Globe, especially during daytime performances when the stage action must compete for your full attention. The RSC doesn't solicit such a vocal response, but it too strives to reinforce the communal nature of performance. Stratford-upon-Avon's vast proscenium theatre - an art-deco icon of the 1930s, and one of the too few major British buildings to have been designed by a woman, Elizabeth Scott - is being extensively remodelled. 'We have gone for a thrust stage,' says artistic director Michael Boyd, 'where the audience are aware of the rest of the audience. I'm sorry for those of you who like sitting in the dark - I recommend the cinema.'
All very bullish, but I'm in two minds. There's a thrill to a darkened auditorium, a heightened concentration fostered by the sense of being alone in company. Community is great, distraction less so. Boyd's own mighty cycle of Shakespeare's history plays last year was probably the best argument for his preferred stage, light spilling over the audience to make us implicit in the power play of squabble and grudge. You'd catch sight of your own feelings of excitement or dismay echoed on another spectator's face, while Jonathan Slinger's thoroughly disdainful, runtish Richard III could take us easily into his confidence even as he scorned our pity.
Sometimes, however, the lights can be blazing but you're far too busy to notice. Take Rotozaza's wonderful Etiquette, a play for two people who are both performers and audience. It is staged on a table top in a public place; we took part last year in a crowded foyer of the Barbican centre on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and it is now occurring in a cafe in Dalston, east London. I shouldn't say too much about it - unpreparedness is the point - but it's a mixture of new wave dialogue and shaggy dog story, deploying homely props and keeping your wits busy as you concentrate on instructions fed through your headphones and on your partner's lines and actions. You're in full view (though not doing anything particularly outlandish), but your mind is in the dark even as your body sits in the light. For some, that's the perfect theatrical experience.
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