Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Massively Long Production

I’m a bit of a fan of massively long productions. This may be partly because I’ve directed Wagner’s Ring (and they don’t come much longer than that). I remember the sense, with the mantra-like music at the start of The Rhinegold, of an audience moving collectively into a slightly different state of consciousness – a trance-like suspension of everyday life - having abandoned the hectic schedule of contemporary living to invest a substantial amount of time in something other.

It’s not just Wagner. Lots of my most memorable theatrical experiences have been with massively long productions. I remember the marathons of Angels in America (both parts in one day), Le Dernier Caravasérail at Le Théâtre du Soleil, Cloudstreet from Australia, and Robert Lepage’s The Dragon’s Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota. In each case, as a member of a privileged audience, you had a sense of moving beyond the comparatively commonplace experience of watching a play. You felt that this was an event of particular significance: that it was, in some sense, historic.

If I’m honest, then I must confess that this is what I am attempting to achieve with The Orientations Trilogy. It is, of course, an incredibly tall order – and a very “tough sell”. With a Wagner opera or a Lepage epic, the audience comes already expecting greatness, and that expectation does much of the work for you. With a lesser-known company, the marathon element is more likely to put people off than to tempt them. Penny and I are spending much of our time at the moment working on strategies to make the Trilogy work in the UK theatre market. Maybe it should play as three individual productions on Wednesday to Friday, with the marathons restricted to weekends (and the day off on Monday). Maybe this means we can’t actually go into most of the venues we’ve used in the past. On the other hand, with the kudos of the Asian partners and the EU behind us, why shouldn’t we be able to re-position ourselves, and give our audience the sense that they are coming not to “a play” but to “an event”?

All these thoughts were focused for me yesterday, as I arrived at the Barbican at lunchtime, ready to spend nine hours watching Lepage’s latest epic, Lipsynch. There had certainly been no problem getting an audience for this: the theatre was packed, and packed with theatrical luminaries at that. I chatted to Tony Guilfoyle (who was Julian in Dis-Orientations, and has worked with Robert several times), with Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer, with Angie and Louise from the Barbican management…. This felt less like an audience, and more like a congregation. So perhaps it is heresy to say this – but I didn’t think this production had the qualities which made Robert’s earlier epics so powerful and luminous, and which have inspired me to search for something analogous in our own work. There were moments of emotional power, and a great deal of humour – but the bulk of the production remained on the level of the mundane, almost deliberately avoiding the transformations between different layers of reality which characterised the earlier shows. And with that, there came a clumsiness in the actual handling of theatrical space, which is the last thing I would expect from this most technically adroit of directors. There were numerous long set changes, in silence, when the performance seemed deliberately to lose its own momentum, and with it any sense of the magical, the hypnotic, the spiritual.

I remember that the first version of Ota was also very disappointing, and yet emerged as a wonderful production two years later. Perhaps the same will happen with Lipsynch. But the first version of Ota was only three hours long, and the later one was eight…..

No comments: