I really wanted to like Matthew Jocelyn’s CanStage production of Melissa James Gibson’s This. And I liked it well enough. The performances are uniformly excellent, the play is witty (Alon Nashman in particular gets a lot of mileage out of its one-liners), Jocelyn and designer Astrid Janson have transformed the Berkeley Street Theatre’s downstairs space into a really quite wonderful theatre, the direction is sharp, and so on. But for the most part, I didn’t much care. I laughed at the funny lines, I was briefly moved by the moving bits, but mostly, I found myself a little bored. And I didn’t like feeling this way, because given how the play was staged — with the audience in full light, the actors coming to sit among us whenever they weren’t in a scene, and no real physical separation between performance space and auditorium — I should have been immersed in the action.

There was one thrilling moment: at one point, Laura Condlln’s Jane and Jonathon Young’s Tom were arguing with each other right in our midst, each standing in an aisle, yelling over our heads at each other. It was a bold staging decision, making it impossible for the majority of spectators to watch the argument from a position of total detachment, and forcing us instead to switch from actor to actor, or to watch just one of them speaking and reacting — in any case, to decide to side with one of them over the other, once and for all or over and over again. Both performers were close to us, their physical presence challenging our (or at least my) ability to imagine the fictional person they were in the process of conjuring, bringing the quality of the performance as such into focus. Sure, the argument between the two characters mattered; but what mattered more, what was exciting for me in this moment, was seeing these two accomplished actors at work, seeing them inhabit their roles, putting their bodies and voices to the task of creating an imaginary presence. In other words, what made this the most interesting moment of the evening for me was its sheer theatricality — its unabashed reliance on not hiding the actors’ labour. The show, for all its apparent insistence on not dividing actors and audience, never reaches a similar level of theatricality again and settles instead for a fairly predictable (if well done) realism. Even the play’s climactic fight remains quite well-mannered, far too well-behaved to stir strong emotions in at least this viewer.

Thinking about why This left me feeling so indifferent was useful, though. It helped me realize that the main reason I keep harping on about the importance of classics and other old plays, and the reason I’m so attracted to modes of staging that rub the theatrical apparatus (including the actors’ work) in our faces is that I am profoundly uninterested in seeing “real people” on stage. I don’t want to encounter the kinds of characters that already inhabit my private world on stage as well. I’m increasingly bored with plays that develop psychologically coherent figures and situations, no matter how laced with wit the writing may be. It’s not that I don’t care about people, or don’t find people interesting, moving, or funny. It’s that I think we have far better media for representing such figures, for telling such stories, than the theatre. TV is infinitely better at it than the stage, as is cinema. I love Girls, but would doubtless be deeply bored by a Lena Dunham play. I worship The Wire, but wouldn’t pay to see its theatrical equivalent. And so on. Realism had its theatrical moment, but it has found far more suitable, far more satisfying venues than the stage since the late nineteenth century.

The theatre — as Shakespeare knew better than most — is most powerful not when it pretends to be real, but when it doubles down on its lies: when it puts its machinery right in front of our eyes, when it lets actors be actors, doing their doing without disguising the difference between them and the characters they play, when it plays rather than acts all-too-seriously, when it sounds nothing like the everyday, when it looks nothing like the real, when its fog smells of strawberries and its powder tickles our noses. Theatre, as far as I am concerned, succeeds when it trusts its own incompleteness, its own insufficiency, its own essential inadequacy at standing in for the things it purports to represent. Film, and especially TV, can make me care for characters without foregrounding the actors’ performances; in fact, to retail a truism, as soon as a performance becomes visible as such on camera, the illusion is in jeopardy. On stage, on the other hand, it’s the performance that gives us — me — access to the character; we — I — don’t care for the character alone, but for the character as played by a particular actor, whose particular body, and voice, and actions, we get to watch, hear, possibly smell, possibly feel. If the actor disappears into the figure, the figure dies.

And that’s why I’m sadly bored with plays like This. As well made and witty as they may be, they’re all too familiar, all too believable, all too real to work any kind of stage magic at all. At least as long as they’re performed in the same realist spirit in which they were written. If Jocelyn had staged the entire thing right in the auditorium, as that one thrilling moment was staged, with the actors’ always unfamiliar, always exciting presence challenging the familiarity of the figures — well, that would likely have earned him demerit points for poor sight lines and “acoustic issues” from our city’s splendid critics, and perhaps even a few wagging fingers for straying too far from the script, but it may have found a genuinely theatrical energy in This that I sorely missed, yet again, last night.

One Response to This isn’t quite it

  1. Roger Beck says:

    Right on, Holger. Or almost right on. But even in “realistic” theatre, what is most enjoyable, to me at least, is watching and listening to the actors do their actors’ thing – if they do it well, that is. And in “This” they did it superbly. That is why Janet and I went a second time, to revel in the performances from seats with sight lines 180° opposite to those our first time. On a different note, one’s dissatisfaction with the characters might have something to do with their representation as comparatively trivial people with comparatively trivial problems in a first-world context, “dinky” as Jean-Pierre’s exit line and exit gesture indicated. No?

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