screen wriTer

Peter Craw­ley on theatre thrown onto the street

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

S Love’so there I was, sit­ting in the Pea­cock Theatre last Fri­day, im­mersed in Big play­ful flut­ter of ac­tion, pol­i­tics, sym­bols and set pieces, and busily try­ing to in­ter­pret the fire alarm. What was di­rec­tor Selina Cart­mell try­ing to say by drown­ing out a quiet di­a­logue with a pierc­ing siren?

By the time I had a plau­si­ble read­ing – the alarm sig­ni­fied so­ci­etal im­ped­i­ments to mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween gen­ders; the in­struc­tion to evac­u­ate rep­re­sented a solip­sis­tic re­treat from sex­ual co-de­pen­dency – a stage man­ager ex­plained that the fire alarm sig­ni­fied a fire alarm and the in­struc­tion to evac­u­ate rep­re­sented an in­struc­tion to evac­u­ate. So much for semi­otics.

It says a lot about an au­di­ence that once we buy into the fic­tive world of a play in progress, a ring­ing bell is only ever con­sid­ered a false alarm. “Fire!” yells out Rosen­crantz, apropos of very lit­tle, in Tom Stop­pard’s Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are Dead, be­fore peek­ing out at the stalls in con­tempt. “Not a move,” he says. “They should burn to death in their shoes.”

At the Abbey, no one seemed un­duly wor­ried – the staff re­sponded ex­cel­lently, and be­sides, that theatre hasn’t burned down for years. But some­thing sur­real hap­pened out­side when both the au­di­ences and ac­tors of Big Love and Three Sis­ters were dis­gorged into the street. It was like be­ing wo­ken too soon from a dream, drag­ging shards of bro­ken fan­tasy into the evening light of the real world.

In fact, Lower Abbey Street wasn’t look­ing very real at all. A valiant troop of 19th-cen­tury Rus­sian in­fantry­men surged through the crowd car­ry­ing one of the Pro­zorov sis­ters to the safety of the Ir­ish Life Cen­tre. They nar­rowly avoided a gag­gle of women in satin dress­ing gowns and bridal lin­gerie seek­ing refuge near the Sal­va­tion Army. Whole cen­turies and cul­tures col­lapsed and folded into one an­other and the city’s cred­i­bil­ity seemed to be un­der strain. Au­di­ence mem­bers of­fered words of en­cour­age­ment: “It’s go­ing very well.”

It re­ally was. A few min­utes later, this dream­like piece of im­promptu street per­for­mance was over and it struck me as a great shame that Hiber­noRus­sian-mis­er­abilist-pe­riod drama is so rarely shuf­fled into post-mod­ern-Amer­i­can-an­cien­tGreek-gen­der-po­lit­i­cal-theatre.

I don’t know if this sort of thing should hap­pen more of­ten, and it must be hor­ri­ble for ac­tors to be in­ter­rupted, but it’s nice to see what hap­pens when re­al­ity and make-be­lieve are de­seg­re­gated. When Ciara O’Cal­laghan and An­gus Óg McA­nally re­turned to the stage with apolo­getic smiles (“wasn’t that weird?”), we greeted them with ef­fu­sive, heart­felt ap­plause (“yes, it was!”) as they slipped back into char­ac­ter. From there the com­pany could do no wrong. The gap be­tween au­di­ence and per­form­ers dis­ap­peared. It was our show now.

A real bond was forged with a false alarm, and it was this, rather than any flames, that fi­nally brought the house down.

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