STAGE STRUCK

There’s no such thing as to­tal re­call, says Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

W hen I cast my mind back through the plays I’ve seen, dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries of­fer them­selves: elec­tric mo­ments that still seem vivid but soften at the edges when I try to fill in the pic­ture; takes on the same plays, con­ven­tional and rad­i­cal, that in­ter­weave in a strange mesh; im­per­fectly re­called Brian Friel quotes that I need to Google.

The won­der­ful thing about the theatre, it’s live­ness, is also its tor­ment: it’s ir­re­triev­able.

Any­one over the age of 30 can prob­a­bly re­late to the en­tropy of ex­pe­ri­ence over time, where de­tails dis­tend, fade and fi­nally slip away com­pletely. Billy Collins’s poem For­get­ful­ness puts the mat­ter in (hope­fully) mem­o­rable terms: “The name of the au­thor is the first to go/Fol­lowed obe­di­ently by the ti­tle, the plot,/ The heart­break­ing con­clu­sion, the en­tire novel.”

With a novel, at least, you can go back to the start. But all those cher­ished mem­o­ries of Donal McCann in Faith Healer, Siob­han McKenna in Bai­le­gan­gaire, and Cil­lian Mur­phy and Eileen Walsh in Disco Pigs will be­gin to stag­ger un­til they are long past jog­ging.

The cru­eller re­al­i­sa­tion is that theatre doesn’t just re­side fi­nally in our bock­ety brains – it re­quires a ser­vice­able mem­ory to hap­pen at all. There are few things more chill­ing than the sight of an ac­tor dry­ing on­stage, miss­ing a cue, fluff­ing a line or re­quir­ing a prompt, be­cause it nags at the fragility of all mem­ory and the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of a pro­fes­sion.

There’s some­thing poignant, then, about the fact that An­gela Lans­bury, push­ing 90, and Michael Gam­bon, who has wor­ried rou­tinely about Alzheimer’s, have both re­sorted to us­ing an ear­piece to feed them prompts.

Given that new plays, es­pe­cially, may go through suc­ces­sive drafts and last-minute ed­its right up to open­ing night, and that mono­logue plays give an ac­tor no sup­port­ing cues to lean on, shouldn’t we make al­lowances for the oc­ca­sional lapse? Be­sides, it will all be for­got­ten in time.

Mem­ory, how­ever, is a ma­jor con­cern of theatre. Lapse, a new show from the ma­gi­cian and men­tal­ist Shane Gillen and Su­gar­glass Theatre, ex­plores the dis­tor­tions of per­sonal re­call, sci­en­tific stud­ies into re­press­ing trauma and the mnemonic meth­ods of il­lu­sion.

Friel’s Aris­to­crats, per­haps his most Chekho­vian play, is at the Abbey, where a fam­ily prop up a past that is not quite in ac­cor­dance with re­al­ity. And The Price, at the Gate, is all about the in­her­i­tance and dis­pute of painful mem­o­ries fol­low­ing the death of a par­ent. In­ci­den­tally, it’s about 10 years since the Abbey and Gate staged those plays – wait­ing, pre­sum­ably, for re­cent mem­o­ries to fade.

Per­haps it’s the in­sta­bil­ity of mem­ory that makes it pos­si­ble, even nec­es­sary, to re­visit the theatre, to but­tress our ex­pe­ri­ence and re­plen­ish our store of sou­venirs.

As an­other Friel quote goes, which I do re­mem­ber clearly: “To re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing is a form of mad­ness.”

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