Back to the theatre

BACK TO THE NATIONAL THEATRE

THE DORFMAN IS one of the three auditoria that make up the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank. The Dorfman, which opened in 2014, is a completely redesigned version of The Cottesloe that used to stand in the same place. On our first ever visit to The Dorfman, today, the 6th of October 2021, we noted that it was a great improvement over its predecessor: better seating and sight lines than at the former Cottesloe.

Stage at the Dorfman

The play that we watched, “Rockets and Blue Lights” by Winsome Pinnock (born 1961), was inspired by a painting by JMW Turner. Originally named “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on”, it is now named “The Slave Ship”. Painted in 1840, it now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Close examination of this wonderful painting reveals the wild sea near a sailing ship is full of hands reaching out from the waves, the hands of Africans sinking after being tossed overboard. Turner, a sympathiser of slave trade abolitionists, might have painted this in response to the tragic story of British slave ship “Zong” on which about 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 when drinking water supplies on-board ran low.

The play explores the possible back stories of those tossed overboard from the ship depicted in Turner’s painting. The drama alternates between the present and the dark past when slavery was still flourishing in the Americas. At first a little confusing, it does not take long before the constant changes in period begin to make sense. The scenes set in the present relate to the making of a film about Turner and those set in the past try to recreate the story that led to the disaster painted by Turner. The ideas behind this play are not without great interest but at times I felt that a bit of editing (i.e., abbreviating) would have made the drama punchier. Understandably, the playwright wanted to make the horrors and inhumanities of slavery abundantly clear to the audience, which she did very well. I am glad to have seen this play, but do not rate it amongst the best I have seen during many decades of watching drama on the stages of the National Theatre.

Our visit to the Dorfman was the first to the National Theatre since the day before the first covid 19 ‘lockdown’ commenced in March 2020. On that day before everything closed down for months, we sat for seven hours in the National Theatre’s Littleton auditorium to watch a truly excellent play, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” by Robert Lepage, the National Theatre at its very best. Even though the play we have just seen at The Dorfman was not nearly as good as the play by Lepage, it was lovely to return to the National Theatre. That said, the South Bank felt eerily underpopulated compared to before the pandemic, probably because of the paucity of tourists from abroad. Walking in the sunshine along what used to be a crowded, joyful recreation area, I wondered whether we will ever experience the ‘normal’ we enjoyed before covid19 changed the world.

Drama at the theatre

stage

 

In the past, I preferred watching films (‘movies’) to attending live drama at the theatre. Now, my preferences have reversed. In live theatre there is an interraction between the actors on stage and the audience. Good actors engage the audience  psychologically and almost physically. And, I suspect that the actors are also engaged by the audience – its attentiveness, its reactions (facial and otherwise), and other signs of the audience’s feelings provoked by their actions. So great is that interaction between performers and the audience that often I leave the theatre at the end of a performance feeling physically exhausted. Even with superb cinema productions, I never feel as gripped by the performance as I do whilst watching live theatre.

Having stated the above, I am now going to be a bit critical. I have watched many live performances of drama on stage, much of which was excellent. However, I have noticed that in some plays, the first (opening) act is often very weak compared with what follows later. On several occasions, I have walked out of the theatre because a play’s first act or first half has been unpromising. This is sad because now I know that many plays improve as they progress.

I cannot understand why so many plays have weak opening scenes. If I were reading a book and the first 10 or 20% of its pages did not capture my attention, I would abandon the idea of reading it through to its end. Why do so many people remain in the theatre when the opening act is unpromising? Is it because they have paid so much for the tickets? Or, is it because they, like me, have realised that most plays take time to build up to an engaging/enjoyable momentum?

Recently, I saw a play “Amsterdam” by Mayur Arad Yasur at the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond (SW London). From its first moment, neither the actors nor the play were able to engage me. The same seemed to be the case for several other members of the audience, who walked across the stage and out of the auditorium within a few minutes of the play’s beginning.

Mercifully, about half way through the performance, which did nothing to make me forget the discomfort caused by my seat – it did the opposite, there was a technical hitch. The performance was paused, and some member of the theatre staff mumbled something, which I imagine was to notify us of the hitch. After almost 10 minutes during which no further information was given to the by now restive audience, I decided to follow the actors backstage to find out what was going on. Only then, did someone come out on to the stage to give some information. As what we had already seen of the play had been so unbearable and there seemed to be no sign that the performance would be resumed in the near future, we walked out. Had the play been more enjoyable or in some way worthwhile, we would have waited for it to continue.

Well, you cannot win every time. For each disaster such as “Amsterdam”, we have have seen plenty of highly satisfactory plays.