Monday, May 21, 2007

The perfection paradox

I think I've already mentioned the moment I fell out of love with the theatre. I was 19, sitting in the front row of The Swan at Stratford. It was Deborah Warner's production of Titus Andronicus, with Brian Cox. It's a real blood-and-guts piece, rough-and-ready early Shakespeare, but the immediacy of the performing space, combined with the pace of the production, gave it a fantastic intensity. We were showered with spit and Kensington gore, and I never washed those trousers again. At one point Peter Polycarpou, who was playing the villainous Aaron, came on stripped to the waist. I was so close that I could see he had a big spot on his back; I was so caught up in the action that I wanted to squeeze the spot, to cause him pain. I stopped myself, halfway out of my seat, and slumped back down, shaking.

And that was it. I knew then that no theatrical experience could ever recreate that, and anything I saw, however good, however powerful, would be second-best. I didn't give up on going to the theatre by any means, and I've seen plenty of good things since, but it's never been top of my list of priorities. It was that feeling you get when a relationship ends, and you think nothing will ever replace it. In this instance, nothing did.

I had a similar experience with live music. In 2002 I saw Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Of course, it's thrilling, lump-in-the-throat music, and the fragile figure of Wilson centre-stage added to the poignancy. I started crying at 'God Only Knows'; but it was during the encores that the whole thing became utterly overwhelming. We were up in the gods, standing on our seats, dancing as if the Pacific was sending its last ever wave our way. Suddenly, a small boy, 10 years old at most, hurled himself to the front of the balcony, dancing to 'Help Me Rhonda' as if he was in some sort of voodoo trance. I knew I'd never experience what the child was going through; in fact, I'd probably never again experience what I was feeling at the time, just by being in his proximity, watching the ecstasy on his face, in his flailing limbs.

Maybe it's the knowledge that a live performance can never be replicated precisely; but I've not had the same experience with a static art form. I've come close with books: American Psycho; Wuthering Heights; the damnation sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Each left me shaken, knowing things would never be the same again; but they didn't stop me reading books, hoping for something similar. I get goosebumps every time I see the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca, and it's been my favourite film for a quarter of a century; but I keep looking.

Theatre and concerts, though? Nah, been there, done that. Which is frustrating in many ways. Should I avoid any brush with revelatory genius, because it makes me dissatisfied with anything else? Or maybe the experience is worth the sacrifice, that I can never go into a theatre without thinking, "Well, it's all right, but..."


Flirty Something said...

Don't get concerts at all.

Why not just put on the DVD and sit as far away from the television with the volume turned up really high, same thing.

Geoff said...

The Othello I saw at the age of 16 will never be bettered. It was a local production and the main character's black paint ran under the lights. He ended up white.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Nice post, Tim. I, for one, have only had so-so experiences at the theatre, and one or two dire ones. The last was a group humiliation of a once-great actor who had developed a stutter the week before. The show was twice as long as a result, and half the people left at the interval. I don't know why I didn't. I'll never forget the sound of so many scrotums tightening. The crime of the crime: very much the Northcote.

Anonymous said...

I think it's ok to accept that the moments of genius are rare. That shouldn't stop you going to gigs or to the theatre - in fact, perhaps the opposite because the more shows you go to, the greater your chance of a transcendent moment.

Football fans understand this pretty well. My fellow Norwich supporters know that pretty much every match they go to will be awful, even the few that we win. But they keep going because they don't want to miss that one unforgettable match that everyone will talk about for years. Suckers.

One of my favourite gigs was Morphine at the Highbury Garage in, I think, 1998. I wasn't even going to go until the last minute - I had been to two crap gigs that week, had reviews to write for both and I could hardly summon the enthusiasm for a third. But I went and it was astonishing - all the more so because of the crap I'd watched earlier in the week.

FirstNations said...

no no no no no. you've only just reached the first landing. the stairs keep going up, dear. and those experiences are where you least expect them. get going.

(Othello at the Bowman in Ashland!)

Billy said...

Musical theatre is the worst of both words, I guess.

epikles said...

but you never know when those moments are going to happen, and they can happen anytime. that's one of the elements that make them so glorious.

Rog said...

It sounds like you're getting old Tim.

I auditioned for the barking dog on Pet Sounds. We saw the Mike Love Beach boys in Thetford Forest in the rain and it was a pinnacle of fir cone excellence.

Tim F said...

Fair enough, Flirty. But someone else might argue that there's a similar distinction between full-on sweaty rudeness with an attractive other, and a lonely moment of self-pleasuring.

Geoff. Young people today don't know the simple pleasures of a badly blacked-up Othello. Did you ever see the BBC production with Anthony Hopkins? Priceless.

God, Ian, the Northcote. I've trodden those boards. And now I'm desperately trying to work out the identity of your stuttering hasbeen. Was it Melvyn Hayes?

Football is different, Shane. It's a never-ending cycle of despair. But I know what you mean about the gigs that you go to on the offchance being among the best. I had to be dragged to see the House of Love, also in about 1988. The band was falling apart, they'd just fired their guitarist (left him at a motorway service station and driven off, according to legend) and they played for about 25 minutes before giving up. It was fantastic.

I keep climbing the stairs, FN. But it feels as if I'm going up the down escalator.

Very true, Billy. And opera is the same, but longer, fatter and in Italian.

Well, that's why I keep making the effort, Tom. It's sometimes good, but deep down I know the stars will never align quite the same way again.

Mike Love is Satan, Murph, and don't you forget it.

realdoc said...

Having low expectations of an event turned upside down is fantastic but coming out saying "I told you it wouldn't be as good as....." can also be quite a warming feeling.
Can I second the Mike Love comment, what a wanker.

Tim F said...

And we're all in favour of warming feelings, aren't we, RD?

Except about Mike Love.

llewtrah said...

Ex-hub was from Stratford-upon-Avon so we used to go to the theatres frequently. Maybe you should go to their Elizabethan style playhouse where you sometimes get stale rolls to throw at the actors to give it an authentic atmosphere! (It's been years since I last went, not sure if safety regs have stopped the roll-throwing)

Tim F said...

I have been to The Globe, which is the best attempt at that kind of verismilitude that I know. But I think that everyone's so self-conscious about the authenticity, and The State Of Being A Groundling, that the sense of immediacy and involvement with the play (ooh, did I just out myself as an anti-Brechtian?) gets lost.

Anonymous said...

mayhap that spot was a deliberate strange-making effect to ensure your alienation was complete. didn't have deborah warner down as a brechtian!
(actually, sounds more like theatre of cruelty)

Tim F said...

No, sorry, I wasn't being clear, RG, Warner's anything but a Brechtian. I was talking about The Globe.

I kind of like Brecht in theory, but it seldom works in practice these days. Although since I've given up on the theatre, what do I know?