Saturday, 9 July 2011

Twice in One Day?

Every now and then performers try to involve their audience by, quite literally, employing their audience: for example, the singer who implores us all to clap along in time (?), the comedian who uses a punter as a butt for jokes or the theatre company which enlists unwilling “volunteers” from the front row. These may be useful techniques for performers but they are not universally appreciated by those who are caught up in them. Indeed I have found myself hauled up on stage (too timid or polite to refuse) and humiliated in front of the public for the benefit of a performance. Some people chosen thus clearly enjoy the experience; for others it can mark the onset of a life-long aversion to live performance.

Fortunately, I have been able to put the trauma of that early humiliation behind me and continue to attend all sorts of performances in search of inspiration. Recently, for example - and for the second time in short succession - I found myself at a concert of classical choral music. This is not a genre for which I claim any special fondness or expert knowledge but I was seduced by a cleverly written e-mail inviting me to attend a free lunch-time concert. The Hungarian choir, Ars Nova Sacra, was to sing at the Quaker Meeting House, in support of a collection for Amnesty International. At least, I thought, I won’t be required to clap along this time.

Although it is an amateur choir this is a very accomplished and respected ensemble with a repertoire of songs by renowned classical composers from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. To my untutored ear the singing was consistently sonorous, harmonious and effortless all the way through the programme. But, when it came to the last three songs, which were by Hungarian composers, there was a distinct enhancement of the performance - a sting in the tail, an unexpected ingredient. The introduction of the native material added a dimension of passion to the singers’ voices which brought the music alive beyond the pure technicalities of recitation. This noticeable injection of emotion caused tears to well in my eyes - as if some forgotten or neglected stop-cock had been loosened without warning.

Later that day I queued devotedly to obtain one of the scarce tickets for an unusual production of a play - a Dickensian story set in an authentically Dickensian building. The stage adaptation of Hard Times was performed not on a stage but in a disused, Victorian mill. The half-dozen sets were distributed over the spacious, emptied floor of the mill where the architecture and the smell of the oil-impregnated floorboards evoked the realities of Manchester’s 19th century manufacturing industry. We, the audience, were required to follow the actors as they progressed the action from one set to the next - thus presenting interesting challenges for all concerned. The actors had nowhere to hide between scenes and jostled with the audience to reach the next set. In this they had the advantage, in so far as they had rehearsed the moves, but people can adapt quickly and it wasn’t long before some of us began to recognise the clues and develop the techniques required to get ourselves into prime positions - pronto!

Preoccupied as I was by acquiring mastery of these cunning tactics, I was in danger of missing the point of the play, until I realised that the peculiar advantage of this type of production is that a choice of perspectives is available to the audience. Being able to observe the performance from some unusual angles I become more engrossed by the action than I might otherwise have been. It was Theatre’s answer to Cinema’s 3D.  I stood almost in-between the leading lady and her father while she passionately lamented her predicament. I could see the actors’ eyes glistening with tears and had to hold myself back from intervening.  From the back of the stalls, perhaps, I might have been more detached.

For the second time that day I searched my pockets for Kleenex and had cause to thank others for showing me the way.

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