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Matt Trueman: Theatre is an optical illusion, but it can’t control how audiences will see the work

Georgia Landers, Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo and Gloria Obianyo in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo: Johan Persson
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Sometimes I think blinking is the most important thing in theatre. Maybe more than anything else, artists need the ability to shut their eyes for a second and see what’s really happening on stage.

As an art form, theatre often requires us to look through reality. It asks us to envisage a fiction out of a real event – to see not the actor, but the character – not a set on a stage, but a space somewhere else. It is, as the Chorus in Henry V declares, an act of “imaginary puissance” – “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them,” they command. “T’is your thoughts that do deck our kings.”

It may be an obvious thing to point out, but theatre is an optical illusion – one that, like a magic eye picture, involves us refocusing our vision to see something beyond what’s in front of us. Watching a play is a form of self-hypnosis or deception. We let our eyes be fooled.

It is all too easy then, for artists to assume that audiences will watch in exactly the way they ask us to watch. It’s a line of thought that stops at communicating its intent. This object stands for something else, okay? It’s a fatal mistake. Audiences aren’t as obedient as all that. We’re an unruly, uncontrollable bunch who – to borrow another line from Shakespeare – “see as we wast wont to see” when we sit in the stalls. We clock your wobbly sets and your wavering accents. Don’t think we don’t.

The National Theatre’s new Antony and Cleopatra is full of such see-through moments. It’s why, I think, it ranked so highly on what one reviewer called “the giggle factor”. Shakespeare’s play culminates in a string of suicides. One character after another turns their blunted stage blade on themselves before Cleopatra, finally, clasps that asp to her chest. It should be awful. Instead, it’s silly.

On press night, as Antony tried to take his own life, Ralph Fiennes’ blood bag stubbornly refused to burst. He lay on the ground, writhing in faux agony, twisting and turning a knife into his guts, desperately trying to draw blood. It took bloody ages, and felt far longer. When he finally finished, the moment felt ludicrous. And don’t get me started on the snake bite itself…

As it happens, the next night I was in Amsterdam watching Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of A Little Life, taken from Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker prize shortlisted novel.

As Jude St Francis, the work’s compulsive self-harmer, Ramsey Nasr repeatedly slumped down beneath a white sink with his cutting kit. Rolling his sleeve up, a blood pack was clearly wrapped round his forearm and yet, each time he drew a razor blade across it, drawing a red slug of stage blood like a prospector hitting oil, I winced in my seat. The one time he cut lengthways, elbow to wrist, I could hardly bear to look.

The difference is clear: one show asks us to see past its pretence, the other acknowledges that we’ll see what we see. In theatre, whoever blinks first usually wins.

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