Theatre is a living art; when mistakes happen or breakdowns occur, you can’t simply stop filming and do it again, as you can in the recorded arts, and for which the audience for the finished product will never know. It’s indeed part of the thrill of live theatre – and reminds you that it is indeed a living, breathing organism – when it happens.
But sometimes you wonder if theatres shouldn’t just be a little bit more prepared with their strategies about how to deal with it. At last Thursday night’s opening night of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, at the end of scene 17 (of a total of 20), the transition to the next one failed, and Fiona Shaw was left reaching towards an actor below her, who was similarly reaching towards her above, for a seemingly interminable time. (Its not just the set but time that seems to stand still when this sort of thing happens).
Finally, a stage manager appeared to apologise for the interruption, asked us not to leave, and for the actors “to maintain their positions.” They had, by now, in fact surrendered them as the stage manager made her announcement. To much giggling, not least from themselves, they feigned adopting their earlier pose. Then a clearly perplexed Fiona Shaw, by now completely out of character, simply sprawled on her back. The stage manager reappeared. The problem wasn’t so easy to solve. The curtain was going to be brought down while they fixed it. But why hadn’t that happened earlier, before the previous announcement? The stage manager could have appeared in front of the curtain, instead of letting the actors flounder uncomfortably beside her.
Eventually the performance resumed, to a loud cheer. The audience’s goodwill was certainly on the show’s side. But Fiona Shaw seemed rattled during her next scene and was floundering a bit. And, it turns out, this was not the first time in the run that a breakdown has occurred. The West End Whingers reported that it happened the night they went. And several people tweeted me after I mentioned it, too, that it had happened when they saw it.
Of course it may have broken down in an entirely different moment this time, but even it was, why was the National stage management so apparently unprepared and left their actors exposed, on a stage alone in front of the assembled ranks of national critics and a full house, to wait and wait?