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Lighten our Darkness or Vice -Versa

20 October 2016

What did grandfather put in his pocket when he went to the theatre?   Was it a pocket watch, perhaps, but one with an inaudible tick; maybe a tiny notebook, in case something occurred to him in the interval; a handkerchief to stifle a sniffle, silk as it is so much quieter?

What did mother put in her handbag when she went to the theatre?   Was it a cough lozenge, carefully re-wrapped (for cellophane sounds like a thunder-storm to those on stage); face-powder so as not to shine in the light-spill across the footlights, a soft paper tissue to dab the eyes in the weepy bits?

Then it came to pass the age of pocket electronics, a steady march of digital watches, then pagers, and ultimately, the mobile ‘phone. Then started the Cold War of the theatre, an undeclared battle between the front-of-house and the middle seat of the middle row who forgot to … or had never discovered you could … switch it off!   Well, yes, some middle-middlers were embarrassed, but some were so enthralled with their little servant-dictator that they could not bear to be parted, and some brassed it out and didn’t care about the other 199 or 4,999 people in the audience, to say nothing of the hapless actors.   Once I was at a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall: the programme about to be broadcast, the hushed anticipation as the conductor raised his baton.  Then, from the massed promenaders, the then well-known squeaky Nokia tune.  The conductor stopped and glared, the audience glared.  Did he go bright red?  Did he throw the offending machine in the fountain in the middle of Arena?  Did he heck!  “Hello, can’t speak right now, I’m at the Proms”, he declared into his ‘phone in a loud and confident voice.

But eventually the front-of-house won the Cold War. An onslaught of recorded announcements, warnings in programmes and polite reminders, like a public anti-smoking campaign, gradually silenced the middle-middlers.  The Coliseum still uses aversion therapy: a recording of a crescendo of myriad Motorolas, a smattering of Samsungs (non-inflammable variety) and oodles of Apples fill the auditorium just before curtain-up.  The whole audience is so alarmed that it may be they who offend, that there is a nervous scrabbling in bags and pockets to triple check that all is silent before again settling down to the overture.

Thus we won the Peace, but the War was not yet over. Something sinister lurked in the darkness.  They had invented texting and suddenly, the middle-middlers had an alternative to noise: light.  All the ‘phones became lit up!  A new battle had started and this was guerrilla warfare at its worse.  Light continues much, much, much longer than the sound used to!

How often have you sat behind a middle-middler texting? There is a small but brilliant glare just under your right eye.  Your programme comes to the rescue, like an archetypal news-editor’s eye-shield from an early American movie. Then another little brilliant glare opens to your left too. Panic: you can only hold the programme on one side at a time!  You try to arch the programme over your head, but become conscious of a repressed tutting from the row behind.  The light is not only glaring in the warm darkness that should be the auditorium, but becomes distracting of the action on stage, as (in spite of yourself) your try to read the juicy gossip being spelt out on the tiny bright screen below.

As an actor, the view from the stage, across the guerrilla battlefield of the auditorium, breaks across the fourth wall. There, where there should be a comforting blackness, appear alien faces.  Impinging one by one on your consciousness and distracting from your virtuoso throttling of Desdemona, or whatever you should be doing on stage, is a strange array of small pale under-lit faces, zombies from an Underworld of silicon chips.  “To be or not to be” you declaim in your best Henry Irving projecting voice, as Desdemona grunts something to the contrary from under the suffocating pillow.

And bear a thought for the poor lighting designer. Day after day have you toiled.  Lighting plans, lighting schedules, a little warm orange here, a little pale straw there, cutting the gels and tweaking the barn-doors, until all is a faultless balance of light and darkness, perfection in chiaroscuro. Then gradually, in this war of attrition, your work of art is wounded by a hail of light bullets from the snipers’ mobile ‘phones.

Then in marched the Improvised Explosive Device of the middle-middler: 4G and the Internet. The Web is here!  Here, in a theatre near you.  What now does the actor on stage think?  Is he checking the script to see if my lines are right?  Is she so bored that she is reading Hello Magazine on-line?  Are they playing each other at Space-Invaders?

No, it is worse. Darken our lightness O Lord, for there is a Pokemon Go creature permanently sitting in seat F8.

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From → Theatre Thoughts

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