At this year’s BITEF, Belgrade’s festival of international theatre, I found myself watching Sebastijan Horvat’s staging of the Fassbinder’s 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in a vast concrete shed on the banks of Danube that had temporarily been transformed into a performance space.
Set in Germany in the 1970s, it’s a tender, intimate, delicately performed account of the relationship between a middle-aged German widow and the Moroccan migrant worker, 25 years younger than her, who first becomes her lover then her husband.
At the end of the first half, one of the performers informs us that this will be an “active interval”. We have time for a cigarette if we wish, but she’s going to make us work. She issues instructions to clear away the existing seating. Then, as we watch, the stage management team creates a new set, designed by Igor Vasiljev.
They fill it with furniture. Chairs and tables; television sets, lamps, and a working cooker. A group of us are made to pass milk crates from hand to hand until the remaining space is filled and every audience member has somewhere to sit. We crowd on to the stage along with the actors, perching on crates, on tables, even on the bed.
This inevitably has an impact on the way we engage with the performers, the production and each other. The audience is all but sitting on top of the cast; the actors have to wade through a sea of bodies. A sex scene becomes an exercise in uneasy voyeurism. (Let’s just say I am grateful I didn’t sit on the bed). The participatory nature of the interval cements a sense of community and unity among the audience.
If the act of going to the theatre encompasses not just the moment when the actors are performing, but the whole experience, the nature of the building we’re in and the welcome we receive, the sense of pre-show anticipation, then it also includes the interval.
Sometimes it can feel like waking from a dream, as we stumble into the light halfway through a show. Sometimes it’s a welcome release. Mostly, these minutes are devoted to seeing to the body’s needs – to use the bathroom, to stretch your legs, to hit the bar. Increasingly, it’s when people instinctively reach for their phones.
Horvat’s production made me think about the untapped potential of the interval, as an extension of the production, underscoring the communal aspect of the experience
It’s obviously a chance for the actors to recuperate too. As someone who used to blog under the name Interval Drinks, I confess to a fondness for the ritual of an interval wine. This is not a consideration in most of the European work I’ve seen – where frequently there aren’t bars in theatres – and the interval ice cream is even more alien, a peculiarly British thing.
Horvat’s production made me think about the untapped potential of the interval, as an extension of the production, underscoring the communal aspect of the experience.
Family-focused shows such as Matilda in the West End and Emma Rice’s staging of Malory Towers include elements of musical performance during the interval – the theatrical equivalent of a bonus track. I also fondly remember that in Melly Still’s production of Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith, the ball took place during the interval. Rob Icke has his ticking clocks to make the audience acutely aware of how long they have until the performance begins again (and, if you’re a woman, how long you have to make it to the front of the loo queue).
I’ve been in shows that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying only to have dissenting voices during the interval dampen my pleasure. A UK theatre director once railed at me that Thomas Ostermeier’s disinclination to include intervals in his work was arrogant and anti-access (his 2018 production of History of Violence, presented at BITEF, clocked in at a restrained two hours).
According to BITEF’s artistic director, Ivan Medenica, the aim of this year’s festival was to explore the nature of the interactions between the performers and the audience, to explore the political potential of a work’s form, the energy of the collective, the capacity for solidarity. There’s political potential in the act of gathering after all. Could more imaginative use be made of the interval? Is it time that could be more creatively spent?
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/