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Andrzej Lukowski: When is an interval not an interval? When it’s a pause

Absolute Hell at the National Theatre features an interval and a 'pause'. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Back in the day, a ‘pause’ in theatre was mostly known as Harold Pinter’s favourite stage direction. And the odds are that somebody would have severe words with you if you got up to have a stretch during one.

Now, though, it seems to be increasingly an official term used to designate… what, precisely?

In the National Theatre’s grandiose new revival of Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell there are two breaks in the viewing action: a 15-minute-interval and “a pause”, which is blandly billed as such as if we must automatically know what it is. When I asked a member of staff what pause etiquette was he sort of smiled at me helplessly – as well he might; the pause had only recently been introduced to the show, which had started previews at a walloping three hours and 40 minutes, with two full-blown intervals.

Off the top of my head, there are three shows currently running in London that boast a pause: Absolute Hell, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, and Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance.

There is a very strong argument that the pause is actually unnecessary in all of the above. None herald a major set change (though Absolute Hell features a minor one), and while the shows are long, they’re only really comparable to the average Shakespeare play.

There is, in theory, no time for the audience to go anywhere or do anything. So it doesn’t exist for audience well-being in the same sense as an interval. (Let the records show I narrowly managed to go to the bar during The Inheritance pause, but I wouldn’t encourage you to follow my example.)

There are probably differing artistic reasons for directors to put one in – conveying time passing; effecting a scene change discreetly – but it’s unlikely to be expressly for the audience.

Call it generation Netflix, call it the rise of smartphones, call it whatever, but we’re now used to our entertainment featuring a break. The clue is in the name. It’s a pause, as in, pause button. Theatre is great, but so is checking your emails and a pause allows you to incorporate the two into the same night without some berk hitting you with a rolled-up copy of the Theatre Charter.

Whether or not they’re an entirely new phenomenon – as you can probably imagine, nobody has bothered to write any scholarly research on the matter – pauses have probably become a thing at the moment largely because audiences are perfectly comfortable with them.

Sure, Ivo van Hove did some pioneering pause work in Roman Tragedies. But as a rule our Continental cousins have always had an appetite for uncut theatre

Of course, in Europe you would probably plough on regardless. Sure, Ivo van Hove did some pioneering pause work in Roman Tragedies. But as a rule our Continental cousins have always had an appetite for uncut theatre that the wussy Brits have never been able to match, which is fine. The pause may not be for everyone, but people say theatre should reflect the real world and for the Brits a little breather is in our blood.

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