The case for plays

The case for plays


I have never seen Edward Bond’s Saved performed, yet it remains one of the most vivid images of theatre I have ever witnessed.

Saved is infamous for a scene in which a group of men stone a baby to death; among the men is the baby’s father, Fred. Shortly after the stoning the baby’s mother Pam arrives to collect her child. She speaks to Fred and begins wheeling the pram offstage and talking to the baby, she doesn’t once look down. I remember reading this scene for A Level drama and a chill coming over me. Imagining her offstage, eventually, looking down into the pram. The horror and shock and disgust and devastation. But Bond doesn’t let you see it. She walks offstage, chatting away to her baby, and the rest is left up to us.

I read a Slate article a couple of weeks ago about the joy of reading plays in which culture editor, Dan Kois, discusses how the act of reading a play allows you to become a part of it. He notes that the imagination necessary to conjure each scene in your mind transports you to the roles of actor and director. From this newly active position you easily note the early signifiers of what is to come, the personality traits of each character, you begin to imagine their lives outside of this script and gradually you are drawn further and further into their world. This participatory response, he states, is “better elicited by published plays than by any other kind of literature.”

I want to add my thorough and heartfelt support to this sentiment.

Discussed in Kois’ piece is Annie Baker’s play The Flick, which was originally produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York and won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I recently saw a production of this play in Melbourne – it is a slowly-paced three hour window into the lives of the staff of a small independent cinema – and the first thing I thought as the play ended was “I really want to read that”.

There are many moments in live theatre that cannot be replaced. The rave that opens Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the scene in Mike Bartlett’s 13 where an old lady sits at a piano and sings Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl in the World’, the gradual emergence of colour in the set and costumes of James Graham’s The Whisky Taster. But still, when I finish watching a really great play I always think “I really want to read that”. And so should you.

It’s impossible to know when watching a play which actions have been written by the playwright and which have been instructed by the director. Some playwrights – like Simon Stephens – write very little stage directions whilst others – Samuel Beckett as an extreme example – are very prescriptive about what should happen when. Both offer a different kind of enjoyment. Without directions you are free to imagine the scene however you like: big and overwrought, quiet and intimate, funny, sombre –– you control the tone of the whole piece. Something that you found to be darkly comical may have devastated someone else; all readings are valid. The Beckettian way means that your reading is going to be almost identical to someone else’s, but this offers it’s own magic; the idea that you can sit with a play and conjure up the exact same image, set, costume, atmosphere as someone else from a different country, or a different century, is fantastic in itself.

What I am always drawn to when reading a script are the silences. The conspicuous absence of what is left unsaid. These small moments can tell us so much about what a character is thinking and give an insight into how they behave physically around other people or by themselves.

Harold Pinter, of course, is the master of meaningful silences; they fill the room at a production of any of his works. But it is even more exciting to see how Pinter has crafted each one – the distinctions of a ‘beat’ a ‘pause’ or a ‘long pause’ are so imbued with meaning (and often, in Pinter’s case, with menace) and when he directed his own works he applied a strict mathematical exactness to each one. Mike Bartlett, on the other hand, does not indicate pauses with directions at all, but instead leaves a blank space on the page, which varies in size in accordance with the length of pause required.

In Mike Leigh’s Grief we are treated to many nervous silences. Set in 1957, the central character Dorothy is struggling to hold her life together; she has never recovered from her husband’s death in the war, her daughter hates her and even her friends are overbearing egotists. The only things seemingly enforcing control are her extreme sense of decorum and her nightly sherry ritual with her brother. In her effort to gain charge of the situation she is constantly fussing about her house; she picks up magazines and puts them down, wanders the room, opens and shuts her sewing box, stares at a photograph, smokes nervously at the window. Every single movement is scripted, highlighting the importance of the minutiae to the reader and setting Dorothy up perfectly as a woman on the edge – something that her dialogue alone might not betray.

Dorothy’s ever-present decorum is evidenced most effectively on the several occasions that she realises she is wearing her apron in front of other people and Leigh writes that she shamefacedly “scuttles” back into the kitchen to remove it. At one point she runs into the kitchen to check on dinner before returning to leave the sherry she was holding in its appropriate place in the living room. You feel her daughter Victoria’s disgust at the formality of proceedings as she constantly storms upstairs to escape the family unit.

Leigh brilliantly captures the personalities and moods of each character with a single direction, after Hugh (a friend of the family) cracks a joke: “Hugh laughs uproariously. Edwin laughs. Dorothy smiles. Victoria doesn’t.” Hugh is on the outside and blissfully happy, Edwin (Dorothy’s brother) is somewhat happy in his general ignorance, Dorothy is strained and fretful but always polite while Victoria is miserable and doesn’t care who knows it.

In many ways, reading a play is a lot more difficult than reading prose and for the first ten pages of a new script I find it really hard. I’m constantly flipping back to the character list to check the ages or relationships, I have to stop myself skimming quickly down a page and go back to figure out who is talking, who’s just done what, who is angry/sad/excited. It’s confusing and tiring. And then suddenly you break through a wall and you don’t have to try anymore. The characters spring up in your mind, they have their own voices, you know exactly how they feel about the situation and each other, you begin to anticipate what might happen next. In short, you can just sit back and let the play unfold before your eyes.

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