And the dagger rolled

I've been much possessed by (stage) death recently. Writing a piece about stage deaths for Obit Magazine had me thinking about deaths in the theatre, whether in the text or in production. I brooded happily on the florid endings in Jacobean tragedy (the killer cupids in Women Beware Women just squeak past the poisoned Bible in The Duchess of Malfi for gleeful ingenuity), and also about the variety of deaths - profound, bathetic, and points in between - that I'd seen on stage. In particular, I remembered one or two that hadn't worked out as they should, because accidents in the theatre are no respecter of solemnity.

When I subsequently saw Othello by the Northern Broadsides company, I was reminded of this last rule. A prop refused to behave and threatened to wobble the show into laughter.

This Othello is a plain, sober production, and the second half especially respects a plot that tightens against hope. A snack-crunching audience was stilled as disaster clustered. A looming Othello (Lenny Henry) snuffed out his tiny Desdemona. Iago's vicious machinations were exposed. In anguish, Othello grabbed a corner post on what was clearly a special military-issue bed, in which the bedpost concealed a dagger designed for just such a moment. He thrust it into his belly and collapsed to the floor.

It was a shocking moment - but when Henry dropped the dagger it rolled and it rolled, and it rolled down a little step and continued towards us with its noisy wood-on-wood trundle, until a woman sitting immediately in the front row leant forward with admirable resource and picked it up so we could get back to feeling tragic.

It should have ruined the show, but it didn't, because that's what death is: the ultimate upsetter of plans, an unassimilable element that refuses to behave tidily and let us tie up neat endings. Stage deaths are, literally, interruptions - pauses in a story that will pick itself up and begin all over again the next night. And those little interruptions serve as the faintest shadows of our own mortality - which may more likely be ludicrous than beautifully stage managed.

By the way, ask the Bard fans, how was the show (which moves to London in September)? Advance curiosity here in Britain focused on the casting of much-loved comedian Lenny Henry in the title role - his first Shakespeare, and indeed his first stage play. And he was rather good. Henry's comedy, and his appearances in television drama tend towards the affable - he isn't a cruel comic, but a loveable tease, a charmer. His Othello, toweringly tall, didn't ask to be loved. He's a big man, barrel voiced - this was how authority moves and speaks. But this general was also achingly vulnerable, and his need to be hurt - and to find terrible comfort in that hurt - was remarkable.

It was a taut production, by Barrie Rutter, with Conrad Nelson a nasty streak of spite as Iago. I've seen Iagos (Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale) who carry a whole world of ice within them, a cold will to annihilate. Nelson wasn't one of these, but his very pettiness only heightened the sheer pointlessness of the play's trajectory. He was a mean, small-minded bully who had no comprehension of what he was engaged in, and that only sharpened the tragedy. Until, that is, Henry dropped the dagger...

Seen any good stage deaths? Any that made you gasp, or weep, or that went gloriously wrong? Let me know...

May 5, 2009 10:38 PM | | Comments (3) |


I just wanted to see some staged deaths....Cant find it to watch!

Hmmm, good artifice/bad artifice. You're right, Sanjoy, there's no logical reason why the panting corpse should undermine a play more than it does a ballet or opera. But, as you say, technical flaws can derail one of these art forms much more than they do theatre. A squally note, a wobbly balance seem to be more problematic than a slurred line or improvised response. Does this mean we invest different kinds of expectation in theatre? That in (naturalistic) theatre, we hope to see some kind of mirror of recognisable human behaviour, and are uncomfortable when the mirror is distorted?

This isn't a direct comment, but a response to the piece you mention in passing for Obit magazine, which I really enjoyed reading. But you can't comment, there, so here goes here.

The Obit piece started:

"It always happens this way. At the end of the play, an actor keels over. Perhaps they have taken poison in despair. Perhaps they lost a super flashy duel, meeting their end at a rapier’s point. Perhaps they simply die of a broken heart (these things happen). However they go, what happens next is always the same. The actor lies on the stage, playing dead. And despite myself I stare and stare to see if I can spot them still breathing."

You scamp. But this goes to the heart of why I so often don't "get" theatre. Not just particular plays, but theatre in general. Now if someone were to die on stage in opera or ballet, and you spotted them still breathing - well, so? That last aria showed you how powerful the soprano's lungs are, never mind that she's weak from terminal consumption. And a dead Juliet is a Juliet with properly pointed feet, thankyou very much, not to mention a gracefully arched spine, and OF COURSE she's still panting.

Does any of that undermine their deaths in any way? Quite the opposite: they're what make the deaths dramatic. Sickled feet or a wobbly upper register will undermine the drama, not an obviously moving ribcage.

In theatre, that doesn't seem the case. Even though the whole event is staged and stylised, it seems that you often need to put the artifice to the back of your mind, otherwise you start sniggering at death scenes and then the whole illusion is destroyed.

So, what's that about?

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on May 5, 2009 10:38 PM.

Cut, but not forgotten was the previous entry in this blog.

Life imitates art - but how does that help? is the next entry in this blog.

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