We often think about sound and vision in theatre - but what about smell? I saw a cracking first play at the Royal Court Theatre last night - A Miracle by Molly Davies, set in rural Norfolk, the arable corner of eastern England. The audience sat on all four sides of a small stage, which was floored with damp mud, scrubby bits of grass and a mess of fallen leaves turning to sludge by the roundabout. But the most distinctive thing about Patrick Burnier's set wasn't the immediate sense of place, or the fact that your bag got smeared if you put it on the floor. It was the smell - a dank loamy scent that settled into your lungs with the heavy air of rural misery.
As the sharp little play continued, man handing on misery to man (or, more pertinently, mother to daughter), the moist depressed air seemed to hang about, immersing us in the characters' flat world under big grey skies.
It's this total immersion experience that scent in the theatre can encourage. Food of course plays a big role, especially when characters are cooking on stage. Saturday Sunday Monday by Eduardo de Filippo triumphed at Olivier's National Theatre in 1973 in a production by Zeffirelli, its raucous Italian family cooking up an alla marinara storm and making stomachs rumble. In a less affluent age, audiences responded powerfully to Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954), set in a genteel beachfront hotel. It wasn't just the play's staunchly suppressed passions that provoked a whimper. The experience of rationing was still very current, so reviews marvelled longingly at the waft of hot toast coming from the dining room.
Of all the stage smells I've experienced, the one I best remember was in a fine production of Euripides' The Phoenician Women, directed by Katie Mitchell for the RSC. As we took our seats, everyone was handed a sprig of thyme, and as the tale of brutal war and human sacrifice developed, we clutched our sprigs tighter. In our hot, anxious hands, the pungent scent of the crushed herb rose and filled the theatre - wild, acrid, plangent. An unforgettable effect.
Do you remember a scent that enhanced your stage experience? Let me know your best theatrical whiffs...
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