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Lyn Gardner: Audiences bring their creativity, not just their bodies, to the theatre

How can any new production of Jerusalem live up to the memory of Mark Rylance as “Rooster” Byron? Photo: Tristram Kenton How can any new production of Jerusalem live up to the memory of Mark Rylance as “Rooster” Byron? Photo: Tristram Kenton
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At the theatre some years ago, I witnessed an exchange that has stuck with me. Upon leaving the performance, a child was greeted by their grandparent with the question: “What did you see on stage?” The child responded indignantly, “I didn’t see it on the stage. I saw it in my head.”

It is a reminder that the audience is a genuine collaborator in the theatre, bringing ourselves and our imaginations to the experience.

A movie is unchanged by an audience’s presence and will continue to run in an empty auditorium. But the theatre requires a human presence in the auditorium, because it is only fully alive when it meets its audience. It is only in that moment that it bursts fully into life.

Shakespeare knew this when, at the start of Henry V, the chorus asks the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” imploring us to “think when we talk of horses, that you see them”.

This task the chorus sets us is not a challenge. One of the differences between theatre and film or TV is about representation.

To show a scene of a milkmaid at work on screen, the director films a woman milking a cow. In theatre, an actor can walk on stage, pour some milk into a rubber glove and the audience immediately knows that is a cow being milked.

We make the imaginative leap with ease. We don’t learn to do it, we know instinctively what is required of us. We don’t just bring our body to the theatre, we bring our own creativity.

Our imaginations are a crucial part of the creative process. As an audience, we are not just witnesses to the magic of theatre, we are part of the spell. Without our presence, our engagement and our creativity the theatre dies, however talented the actors and however hard they work on stage.

We often talk in the theatre about the suspension of disbelief, but actually what happens during a great show is that belief is expanded. It is a kind of alchemy.

If the audience is an essential component during a performance, then our minds and memories have always been a crucial part of keeping theatre alive. Until the advent of NT Live Encore performances and Digital Theatre, once a show’s run ended, it was over, preserved perhaps in the amber of a newspaper review and some production photographs.

The only place it genuinely lived on in was the individual memories of those who were there, and actually saw Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Complicite’s Mnemonic, or The Sultan’s Elephant weaving its way through the streets of London.

Memory, of course, is fallible and becomes burnished. Some years ago, I wrote a piece about productions that had passed into legend; the kind of show that if you mention its name people immediately start reminiscing about just how great and groundbreaking it was.

Interestingly, when I looked back at documentary evidence surrounding those productions, including the reviews, a picture emerged that was often far less glowing than glistening memory suggested.

Often what people, including myself, who were present at the time recalled was not the show itself but the experience surrounding it, particularly if the show took an unusual form or was in an unusual location.

We all remember when theatre feels like it is speaking directly to you, and you alone, as if its creators knew exactly what was going on in your life at that moment. Sarah Frankcom once told a story about a man coming out of a revival of A View from the Bridge at Manchester’s Royal Exchange who asked her: “How did they know what it’s like to be me?”

But those occasions are rare. Most of the time, theatre is a far less visceral experience, and one that often gets better with distance.

That’s why I approach new revivals of plays that I’ve loved, and which burn brightly in the mind, with a slight feeling of trepidation. How can any new production of Jerusalem – and the Watermill is staging one later this year – live up to the memory of Mark Rylance as “Rooster” Byron? What if Complicite revived Mnemonic and it wasn’t quite as good as I recall?

Unlike a film, which remains the same even if it was made 50 years ago, the great thing about theatre is that its texts are simply an idea for a show.

Even if, as I discovered recently, a revival of Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite doesn’t live up to your memory of the original, there is still pleasure in seeing a younger generation discovering and remaking an old show in a new way. Memories can keep theatre’s past alive, but we need to take care they don’t shackle us.

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