It wasn’t hard to estimate the Saturday night stalls crowd at Northampton’s Royal Theatre for the final performance there of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei in a production by Luc Bondy of David Harrower’s English version, called Sweet Nothings.
A Bad Night Out?
I can’t say whether the sprinkling of around fifty was connected to the cancellation of the matinee, or what attendances had been like during the week. But it’s a fair assumption Sweet Nothings hadn’t appealed to the Northants. dramatic palette during its week’s visit.
Yet it came with excellent credentials, in a production associated with Vienna’s Festwochen and London’s Young Vic, as well as ventures in Recklingshausen and Madrid. The Swiss Bondy is a star-turn among internationally-recognised directors and there’d been plenty of publicity, mostly positive, about the production from its recent London run.
But the only comment I heard, at the interval, was the frank statement by a member of the audience that this was the worst thing she’d ever seen at Northampton. Maybe she hadn’t seen much there, though I doubt it. In which case, it certainly wasn’t the worst thing she’d seen there (I could name names from over the years). It was, indeed, quite likely among the best.
The Customer’s Always Right.
If she’d said she’d never enjoyed any piece of theatre she’d ever seen as little, or been so bored, we’d have had to believe her. And that’s no criticism; anyone has the right to loathe what others love, and vice versa. Besides which, let’s not forget, she was one of the fifty or so who had come along. If the time and cost of her trip had led to such disappointment, that’s something no theatre should shrug off.
I hope she writes to tell the Royal and Derngate management how she felt. And I hope they respect and respond to it. But I very much hope the response, to an individual comment, or to audience figures, isn’t to give up on such splendid work as this.
Such what? Yes, it is splendid, it is different. And it is demanding. Because Bondy appears to deny the audience many of the things they expect from a production.
Schnitzler’s piece itself is hardly a breeze, with its story of careless young rapture in fin de siècle Vienna caught fatally in the city’s tradition-bound code of honour and duelling. Even allowing for the dimness of an old print, Max Ophuls’ 1933 film is a downbeat experience (compared with La Ronde his later film of Schnitzler’s Reigen). Tom Stoppard injected the piece with wit, but his Dalliance was a free adaptation reset backstage at the theatre.
The Producer Not the Play.
But it’s not the play alone that makes Sweet Nothings tough going. Bondy denies all the little collusions that allow complicity and a resulting confidence in the audience. Most people can take the tough and distressing up to quite a high level, so long as it’s made clear tough is what’s going on. A glance, or tone of voice, a pointed silence can all convey this. What Bondy does is direct so the scene continues to elude a firm grip. The audience is offered no equivalent to the cinematic ‘Establishing Shot – a view of Nelson’s Column to tell we’re in London, or a sunny scene after a nocturnal sequence to show a new day’s dawned.
Instead characters behave as if we weren’t there, action isn’t ‘tilted’ physically towards the front of the stage or in the audience’s direction. We might be casual watchers who’ve entered and are perching the far side of a large room from the characters, as they continue whatever they were doing, ignoring us.
With this go none of the usual courtesies of explanation, or hints in the playing about who characters are or what they think of each other. Such things emerge, perhaps detail by detail, though they’re not particularly pointed out, whenever the script wishes to tell us. These people know each other, they don’t have to introduce themselves or come to terms with each other. It’s as if, again, we have walked in on a scene unknown to us and nobody is aware of our presence as they continue whatever they’re doing.
We’re left watching without any of the usual nudges by which a director or actors enable us to catch up on these characters, or to feel they are presenting events for our sake.
So, at half-time or full-time (particularly the former, when I heard the comment, and when the playwright hasn’t brought about his resolution) it’s easy to feel snubbed, excluded, as if no-one’s bothering about us. As if, in fact, we’re not wanted, even if our presence has been noticed.
There Is A Reason.
What’s the point of doing things this way? Well, it gets over the limitations of politeness, the awkwardness of introductions and the sense of manipulation. What we pick up for ourself is more gratifying (for we are solving a puzzle) than what we are being told, which we are easily aware is leading us down a particular route.
It is, in other words, more lifelike. We’ve had to make our own introductions, establish ourself in a place where nobody’s greeted, helped or explained things for us. Because of the extra concentration and thought we’ve had to invest, the rewards are greater, if the experience is more unsettling.
Of course, it’s a con. But a con convinces if we don’t realise what it is. Of course they know we’ll be there. Of course they’re not playing without regard to us – this isn’t one of those mutter-over-matter Stanislavsky distortions that used to afflict some American performances. But it doesn’t look like that. It takes us by surprise, and if we play along (in the end it’s all a game, of course) then by taking part, and sticking with it, the eventual experience can be deeper.
Not for all, clearly. And like all new theatrical means of expression it has a honeymoon period. Some people will have seen it done often before, and will be tired of the marriage already. To others it will be like sudden new love – or the start of a difficult courtship.
There are black financial times forecast for the arts, as for everything else that’s not being paid to a senior banker. It could be easy for Northampton to turn (or return) to the pleasantly adequate rep it so often was until the last few, more adventurous years. But that would be a sad retreat.
One thin house – even a week’s thin houses, if that’s what occurred – shouldn’t upset the Royal and Derngate operation. Its own pair of Young America productions, by Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, are sold out for the foreseeable future at the Cottesloe on London’s South Bank.
That’s one way to raise the profile. What Northampton saw last autumn, London’s catching up with now. But no one person can employ the gamut of theatrical styles and methods, which is why it’s also part of the theatre’s work to being new and challenging high-quality work to its own town.
Years ago theatre programmes at Leicester Haymarket used to carry somewhat apologetic adverts for the Royal as ‘the Northampton alternative’. Now the Royal and Derngate (the Royal at least) is one of those theatres that is setting the regional standard. Which is why the likes of Sweet Nothings is essential to its artistic development, even though it’s clearly not suited to everyone’s taste.