A Number – August 2015

Experience: 4/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Joint production by Nuffield Theatre and Young Vic

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 5th August 2015

More nonsense from the Young Vic. When we went to pick up our tickets, the young woman at the box office kept the actual tickets and instead gave us a couple of blanks printed with numbers, in this case 211 and 212. In other words, we were given a number so we could get in to see A Number, geddit? I don’t know how long it took the creative team to come up with that particular gem of wit, but if it was any longer than ten seconds they deserve to be fired. This sort of crass idea is becoming all too prevalent nowadays, and while I have no problem with whimsy and humour, this just came across as heavy-handed and patronising. Fortunately Steve got hold of our real tickets as well, so the archives will be complete.

This non-ticket allowed us to queue outside one of the four entrances to the Maria till shortly before the start time. Then we were let in to take whatever seats we liked in a small viewing room. Three tiered rows of upright chairs faced a large window with white vertical blinds. The walls were entirely wood panelled – pine, I think – and I realised later that there were two speakers above the window, one on either side. We sat at the far end of the first row, on the left, which gave us plenty of leg room, and fortunately the performance was only fifty minutes long, as the seats would have become uncomfortable if it had been much longer. Through the slight gaps in the emergency exit next to us, I could see another area of seating, and this was presumably replicated around the stage. It was clear to me that this set up was meant to suggest that we were observers watching some kind of experiment unfold, not unreasonable given the premise of the play. To keep us amused before the start they played some techno-style music which consisted of a low drone punctuated by rhythmic beeps: fine at the beginning, it was grating on my nerves long before the performance began.

The blinds were turned round, which alerted us that the action was about to begin, and then they drew back slowly from the centre revealing our own reflections. This was just an effect of the lighting, and when the blinds were fully drawn back, the lighting changed and we could see into a large box. The windows of the box now reflected the interior which contained just two actors and one chair. Lex Shrapnel, playing the sons, wore a white T-shirt and jeans, while his father John, who was playing the father, wore a check shirt and beige trousers.

The sound was a bit muffled, and I realised with a sinking heart that we were invisible to the actors. I wasn’t even sure that they could hear us, especially as there was very little reason for us to make a noise for quite some time. The occasional burst of laughter suggested that sound could travel, but I felt very cut off from the performance and found it hard to get anything out of it at all. This was a great shame, as both actors rank highly in our estimation, and we’d booked for this production specifically to see them act together on stage. Perhaps we will one day: this event counts as performance art rather than theatre for me, since there was little or no communication between the actors and the audience, nor was the audience sharing the space with the actors. Their performances had to be done mechanically, relying on the interactions between themselves only, which produced a very strange effect: it was as if we were watching a film or TV show instead of a live performance. Steve even wondered if they were in a different part of the building altogether, and we were simply watching a projection or transmission. Given these difficulties, along with some gloomy lighting which may have been a technical necessity, I found it hard to glean any details in their portrayals, so the characters remained quite broad.

The scene changes were marked by switching the lights again, so that we had a few seconds to see ourselves in the mirror. There was some sound effect as well, but it didn’t register enough with me to remember it. The second scene showed us the original son from whom the clones had been taken; his behaviour was more animalistic than in the previous production we saw, with the father holding the chair in front of himself for protection at the beginning of the scene. I lost interest in the story and the characters during this part, so the time, though short, dragged for me. I was aware though that this production was more focused on the variations within the father/son relationships, whereas the previous production had brought out more of the potential problems with the technology itself, as I recall.

Scene three returned to the favourite son. I had spotted a few flashes of light from the far side of the box, so I took some time to check out if there was anything that could cause them within the box, such as a watch; neither man was wearing one, nor could I see any other reflective item, so the flashes remain a mystery. I did notice that they used the mirror effect themselves at least once to illustrate the dialogue, gesturing towards their own multiple images when talking about the possibility of many versions of themselves, so the set wasn’t completely wasted.

The original son returned for the next scene, and again I found myself losing interest. I wondered how they were going to take their bows at the end: would they open the set up somehow or just change the lighting so we could finally see each other? The last scene showed us a third son, one who had only just found out about his duplicated ‘selves’. They had produced jackets from somewhere and the father was carrying a glass, plus there was now another chair in the room.

This son was a completely different personality to the other two. His life seemed to be much more settled, and he was unconcerned about having so many doppelgangers running around. He was also much more superficial; when the father tried to probe for a sense of who this person was, the young man could only provide simplistic platitudes, and I could see how disappointed the father was. He was still looking to find another replacement son, given that the first two were now dead, but the man sitting in the other chair wasn’t going to fill that void. Well, it was a void of his own making, so he couldn’t expect anyone else to make him complete.

I found this scene lighter and funnier, with the son appearing a bit New Agey and trendy. It was a better scene to finish with, and for their bows the lighting changed to the mirrors for us then flicked back to the box. They bowed to each side and there was a fair amount of applause, but I felt very dissatisfied with our evening and kept my contribution short and perfunctory; they couldn’t see us so I felt no qualms. Steve rated the performance higher than I did – 6/10 – but he was ignoring the extras which made the experience less pleasurable; after adjusting for those, we came out at much the same rating.

Since I’ve categorised this as a piece of performance art rather than theatre, I decided to take a paragraph to give my working definition of ‘theatre’, one which may well develop and change over time. At present, I consider theatre to be a communication between the actor(s) and an audience in a shared space via the performance of a text. The text may include stage directions to a greater or lesser extent (The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other would be at one end of that spectrum) and the performance can include the use of screens for various purposes, but the actors on stage have to be engaging with the audience directly rather than by camera for it to be true theatre in my view. Edward II at the National last year loses out because for some scenes, even though the actors were on stage, they had a camera shoved right in their faces and we were expected to view the performance solely on the screens – performance art. (And I mean no disrespect to the actors in any of these productions.) I have no doubt this definition will be refined or even abandoned as time passes and I gain even more experience of the joys of theatre, but it will do for now.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me


2 comments on “A Number – August 2015

  1. Peter Serres says:

    I agree with you. Tricksiness invariably alienates me. One of the reasons that I enjoyed the Donmar Henry IV less than their Julius Caesar was the nonsense that the audience were made to assemble across the road and pretend to be visiting a “real” prison. A dishonourable mention also for the child soldiers with automatic weapons bawling at the audience to switch off mobile phones (un- Welcome to Thebes) at the NT). Comparing notes with a friend at the interval, I found that I wasn’t the only one tempted to tell THEM to “Shut the F*** up”.

  2. Yes Peter, it’s bad enough when you have to ask other audience members to be quiet, but the cast really should know better! 🙂 It’s a shame that so many of our younger directors feel the need for some kind of gimmick or stunt, presumably to make the play ‘relevant’ to younger theatregoers – definitely a case of “less is more”. And as for the prevailing attitude of giving the audience really uncomfortable chairs to sit in…don’t get me started!!

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