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Natasha Tripney: When is a play too long?

Eve Benioff Salama, Lia Williams, Ilan Galkoff and Angus Wright in Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Tick, tick, tick. The running time for the Almeida Theatre’s current – excellent – production of the Oresteia, the first production in their ambitious Almeida Greeks season, clocks in at three hours and 40 minutes. And while this is entirely justified – there’s not an ounce of fat on it and it grips you throughout – I’ll admit to a emitting a little ‘eep’ of alarm when I realised quite how long it was.

I think there is something about crossing that three hour line which makes a difference, psychologically at least, between a longish night at the theatre and something more demanding of its audience physically and emotionally.

This feeling is further underlined by the fact that the Almeida’s Orestetia does not have intervals but ‘pauses’ in which a clock ticks throughout, counting down the minutes and seconds until the doors to the auditorium are sealed and the play begins again. As a device it is entirely in keeping with the themes and aesthetic of Robert Icke’s production but it also leads to a certain kind of strategising. Not least owing to the number of female toilets at the venue, there’s an internal debate over ‘liquids out’ versus ‘liquids in’. Interestingly, this didn’t feel quite so pressing an issue during the glorious Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia’s Eugene Onegin at the Barbican though it was only 15-odd minutes shorter. Maybe I’d just had less coffee that day.

The word journey is one much over-used but often with plays of great length you do begin to feel as if you have travelled, not just with the characters but also with the cast and your fellow audience members. The production that a lot of people have mentioned in relation to the Oresteia is Ivo van Hove’s six-hour Roman Tragedies marathon, played without an interval but with an onstage bar.

This sense of travelling was certainly true of Elevator Repair Service’s extraordinary Gatz, an eight-hour (including dinner break, though some people brought packed lunches to tide them over) staging of The Great Gatsby in which the whole of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is read aloud. The full cycle of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays – the theatre highlight of this year’s Brighton Festival – ran to a similar length if viewed together, though they could be seen on separate evenings. But watching them over the course of one day it was possible to glimpse the actors’ fatigue, and, particularly I think as each play takes place over the course of a meal, to come to feel as if you had shared something with them.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this, for me at any rate, remains Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, a documentation of one woman’s life – from birth through to the present day – performed as a series of episodes, five so far, all of which were presented over the course of one sunny day in May at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2013. The whole experience was around 12 hours long, though this included breaks in which the cast manned a barbecue and handed out brownies. They even distributed cups of cocoa at the end of the last episode, long past midnight, as we headed out of the theatre. It was the perfect gesture after what had been an extraordinary day. And long as all these experiences were they all earned their claim on your time. I have seen productions which were far, far shorter, which conversely, felt far more like an imposition, like they were asking too much. Length is relative – but is there ever such a thing as too long?

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