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Spinning a yarn, or telling the truth?

By • West End
The extraordinary performance of Cillian Murphy in Misterman at the National Theatre takes us right back to the original function of theatre, that of story-telling, and the show is a perfect reminder of how dazzling that experience can be.

My colleague Sarah Hemming is making a BBC radio documentary about the phenomenon of what is now called "immersive" theatre, and I popped into her studio in Broadcasting House yesterday afternoon to add my two penny's worth to the discussion.

Because I really rather disliked You Me Bum Bum Train — I wanted to see myself being in it, not just be in it — and was unimpressed by Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death (bad Poe, bad acting, coercive audience manipulation), I was being cast as a dissenting voice.

But it's more complicated than that. There is nothing new under the sun, and while it is essential that every new theatre generation, and audience, has to discover its own way of doing theatre, perhaps increasingly outside of theatres themselves, there's a danger that the process, or the "fun" of it is mistaken for the real thing when it ain't necessarily so.

I mean, Robert Wilson had people traipsing over mountaintops many moons ago, and Peter Brook originally set The Mahabharata in a disused quarry in the small hours, so that the audience could experience the sunrise in the play as a real natural event. And we've all been going round abandoned hotels and standing outside shop windows for decades. I've even seen Arthur Smith do a show on a public putting green (no, it wasn't called "Toad in the Hole").

The difference with the "immersive" events of the 1960s and 1970s was that they were part of an alternative culture, a real expression of upheaval, so that the audience really did copulate with the actors on stage in the Living Theatre, and Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789 at the Roundhouse did express a revolutionary fervour of the time in its parallel example of the French Revolution, staged as a fairground sideshow with many booths and the audience in the middle of it.

Now it's all much more to do with a party mood, raves in Hoxton, or moshing at a rock concert. It's a trendy past-time for anyone "up for it." You rarely get as powerful or indeed refined a "total" theatre experience — call it "immersive", too — as you do with Cillian Murphy in Misterman.

When it comes to writing in the theatre, the subtlest playwrights often prosper in that area of what a character says being the opposite of what that character means, or even means to say. It's a permanent source of theatrical friction. And fiction.

I was expecting something along those crossed lines when I went along to the King's Head to see The Truth-Teller by David Crook. But just as Alceste in Moliere's The Misanthrope cannot stop himself telling the truth, so the hero in Crook's play cannot help telling lies.

Actually, hero is too strong a word for him, as nothing really happens in the play except for the appropriate discovery that speaking the truth at all times probably makes it harder for us to live with each other. This much is not worked out in plot and character, as in Moliere, but in broad strokes of slapstick comedy, not all of it hilarious.

Still, Svetlana Dimcovic's production has a kind of agitated energy and has no qualms about letting her actors off the leash, and Naveed Khan is very funny indeed as a head-wobbling, hand-flapping Sri Lankan tobacconist whose shop is burned down by a stray cigar, involving the Russian mafia in a levered-in side-plot to fiddle the insurance on a huge supply of fake Sobranie cigarettes.

The more extreme this becomes, the more unlikely it seems, and still the truth proves, yet again, to be even stranger than fiction.

Cillian Murphy in Misterman brings a whole world of unlikely events and characters to pulsatingly truthful life. His acting is great because it is suffused with the story he tells. In a lesser way, the same is true, believe me, of a charming solo version of The Winter's Tale which I saw in a primary school gymnasium in Barnet, north London, one morning this week.

The story-teller, Xanthe Graham, accompanied by a musician, and with an array of props, head-dresses and sheepskins, relayed the bones of one of Shakespeare's most beautiful plays, with a fine narrative lucidity and odd quotations. And she had no trouble at all in enlisting nearly all of the sixty children, at various stages, in the story itself, playing kings, princes, shepherds and statues.

"It is required that you awake your faith." It was, and we did. It was one of the best instances of "immersive" theatre I've seen in ages.


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