Warning: this post contains spoilers of the plotlines of Uncle Vanya, A Doll's House and A Streetcar Named Desire.
On Thursday, I was on the train to Bristol, my destination the Old Vic. I was visiting to talk to new artistic director Tom Morris, attend a public meeting to announce his first programme, and, last but not least, see a performance of Uncle Vanya. Which I'd never seen before. I happened upon Lyn Gardner's delightful Critic's Notebook piece, published in the G2 arts pages. Here is the first paragraph:
When I saw Uncle Vanya at the Bristol Old Vic last week, a woman in front of me gasped when Vanya appeared on stage waving a pistol. She had clearly never seen Chekhov's play before. Every word for her was freshly minted, each narrative twist and turn a surprise. Fortunately, Andrew Hilton's revival is so good, it was fresh and surprising for me, too.
I couldn't but laugh. To my shame (and yes, all right, I'm supposed to be the chief arts writer of the Guardian) I didn't know that Uncle Vanya came on with a gun. Unlike the woman sitting in front of Lyn, though, I wouldn't now be gasping when it appeared. (Though, as my brother – my date for the show – pointed out, the health-and-safety warnings about gunshots posted by the entrance to the auditorium were also a bit of a giveaway.)
The more theatre I see, the more precious those nights on which I see a play for the first time. These occasions are necessarily dwindling, but still more frequent than I would usually dare admit. Here are some staggering confessions: until I saw A Doll's House at the Donmar this summer, I didn't know that Nora left at the end. And, another Donmar experience – until I saw Streetcar there this autumn, I didn't realise that Blanche gets carted off by the men in white coats. (Yes, for I have lived 37 years without seeing the movie.)
I'm not boasting – far from it, I am deeply ashamed – yet, in my heart, I know that these first encounters with plays are something wonderful, as their plotlines unravel before you as if being forged in the mind of the playwright there and then. Here is genuine suspense, genuine surprise – the first and only time that one will feel this way. (And yes, despite the gunshot spoiler, my first encounter with Uncle Vanya was a wonderful experience.)
Seeing a play over and over again brings different pleasures: the deep knowledge of a text; an attentiveness to the particular shade and light applied by the director to the drama; and the effects of the passage of time on one's own reading of the play. I am so glad that I studied Romeo and Juliet as a teenager, for I will never again have quite the same reaction to the intensities of teenage love and suicide as I did then (vividly I recall Sean Bean and Niamh Cusack in the title roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company). In one's 30s, the drama seems to take on a different tone. In the case of other Shakespeare plays – Lear, Henry IV – I suspect their resonance will grow deeper the older one becomes. The particular time at which one sees a play will also invite you to read it differently. So watching Henry V at the outbreak of the Iraq War (as directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National) brought one's attention to the "dodgy" legality of both Henry V's claim on France and of the allied invasion of Iraq. The same theatre's production of Oedipus last autumn, in the wake of the banking crisis, turned one's attention to the fragility of human prosperity, both as articulated by the text and as all too clearly seen in our own times. That is what makes us go back to the theatre, time and again. The plays make us see the world differently; and the world makes us see the plays differently.
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