[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/60040?ns=guardian&pageName=How+I+fluffed+my+exit+lines+%7C+Mark+Lawson%3AArticle%3A1308211&ch=Comment+is+free&c3=Guardian&c4=UK+news%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CMichael+Frayn+%28Playwright%29%2CAlan+Bennett+%28Playwright%29%2CCulture+section&c6=Mark+Lawson&c7=09-Nov-20&c8=1308211&c9=Article&c10=Comment&c11=Comment+is+free&c13=&c25=Comment+is+free&c30=content&h2=GU%2FComment+is+free%2Fblog%2FComment+is+free[/img]It was not boredom but anger that tempted me to leave a play in mid-show – but I lacked the courage
In the middle decades of the 20th century, when theatre was testing the limits of taste, an off-stage sound-effect was regularly heard in the auditorium: the rat-a-tat of seat-backs clacking as scandalised theatregoers walked out. Because of a liberalisation of opinion – or, possibly, softer chair coverings – this noise has become a much less common occurrence.
But last week, for the first time ever, I was tempted to leave a theatre in mid-performance, not through tedium or sciatica – common enough feelings for anyone who sees a lot of plays – but from moral anger.
The play is Our Class, a world premiere at the Cottesloe auditorium of the National Theatre in London of a drama by the Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek. It's a fiercely impressive piece, inventively staged, which follows a group of Catholic and Jewish school-mates during a period in which a terrible antisemitic massacre takes place.
It's a rightly angry play and I shared the writer's rage, until a moment when it turned against him. A young woman, Dora, is raped by three of her classmates in turn. The characters look back on the action of the past – from either old age or the afterlife, depending on their luck – and Dora's reflections on this violation are: "I screamed, but I could feel myself getting wet … I felt a pleasure I'd never known … I'd been raped by that pack of savages and I'd actually felt pleasure."
My first reaction was to hope for a mishearing caused by the actress's mumbling or my ageing ears. But the published text was on my knee and the lines had been crisply delivered as written. I have never believed in censorship, but it struck me that these words, though possibly tolerable if spoken as personal testimony in a documentary, have no justification when given by a male writer to a female fictional character because they appear to validate one of the nastiest and most discredited of male fantasies. Even more queasily, the speech is an incidental detail, irrelevant to the main business of the play.
What is the etiquette of protesting in the theatre? I once saw – during a performance of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen at the National – a man shout "I object" (presumably on some point of historical interpretation) and leave the theatre, while the startled actors carried on. I lacked the nerve for that, and leaving during the scene would have involved clambering over a row of eight. Also, a walk-out seems both attention-seeking and actor-distracting, two outcomes to be avoided.
So the next opportunity to make a point was that discreet form of walk-out: not coming back after the interval. John Mortimer (whose memorial service was this week) and his first wife were apparently known as the "half-time Mortimers" in the 50s and 60s because they so rarely made it to the final curtain. At the theatre I was in, there's something called the "Cottesloe shuffle", in which polite but bored audience members edge ever further along the wall outside during the interval before disappearing round the corner and never coming back.
But it seems to me that professional critics have an obligation to stick it out to the bitterest ends; so, apart from work and family emergencies, they have always tried to stay until the applause, even if reluctant to add to it. Admittedly, on one bizarre occasion, inconvenient schedules led to my seeing the first act of a new play on a Monday and the second on a Tuesday – giving one audience the impression of a half-time walk-out and the other one the surely peculiar impression of a walk-in.
There's a strange payoff to this story. During the interval of Our Class, while wondering whether my anger was enough to justify missing the second half, I walked across to the main National Theatre building because the coffee bar there is bigger and the service quicker. Returning to the Cottesloe – having decided to stay with the play – my route took me through the interval crowd from Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art. Last week the BBC was contacted by a theatregoer who claimed to have seen me leaving that production at the interval, presumably because I was spotted walking away from that audience.
So deciding not to do the play I was watching the discourtesy of early departure inadvertently brought the accusation of giving the insult to one for which I had no ticket. (I saw The Habit of Art on another night and didn't want to leave even at the end.) But this is an example of how sensitive people can be to early leavers from a play.
Back at Our Class, the second half passed with my attention sapped by anger at that speech. Back home an internet search revealed that no review seemed to have raised this issue, and the National says that there have been no complaints to the theatre, although there was angry discussion among women in the audience the night I went.
Perhaps we are all too polite. I still feel I should have had the courage to leave an empty seat. There are still moments that merit that rat-a-tat sound from the past.
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Guardian: How I fluffed my exit lines | Mark Lawson
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