Wednesday 8 June 2011

Two deaths, three kisses and a punch-up

Following on from my experience of sitting in on a rehearsal nearly a month ago I went up to Ancoats on Monday evening to view one of the preview performances of Hard Times. Although the play is sold out there are apparently a few 'on the door' tickets available for each performance, you'd have to contact the theatre to find the details. The post I have written for the Library Theatre blog is up now and you can read it at (this link goes to my post, just click the header to read the impressions of the other bloggers as well.)

I realise that I concentrated very much on my response to the entirety of the performance rather than the 'play' so I just wanted to add that all the components that made it up were just perfect; the performances were all powerful and convincing, particularly Louisa (who I think had the most interesting and challenging part), the set design, the music and sound effects, the costumes and the circus performers were all wonderful, and I just loved the slow-motion fist fight, it was excellent. These elements all came together to create a simply amazing experience, but it was the staging that turned it into something utterly unique. I am not sure I would have been so interested to see this play performed on a stage, it would have lacked so much. It was just the most captivating evening, I am going to keep an eye out for future projects with great interest.

Edited 5/7/12 to include the text of my contribution to the Library Theatre blog since it was sitting around in the list and had not been posted here:

The clean air, the sanitised streets around Murray's Mill and the quietly dozing geese by the canal-side don't give much of an impression of the harsh reality of the lives of Victorian mill workers ... but the atmosphere that has been created inside the building does a much better job. We descend into the basement to the scents and sounds of Victorian street life and a few moments later I am startled out of museum mode by the thundering footfalls of a woman in a shawl and in a hurry; the play has begun without ceremony or curtain raise. After watching the comings and goings for a little while we are unobtrusively invited to go up to the main performance stage. The space is huge, and emptier than I had anticipated; the props and furnishings are minimal, authentic but unassuming, and benches for the audience are the only physical dividers between the sets.

My fears about the audience were totally unfounded, they were, as predicted, 'very well behaved'. It never felt crowded and everyone was quietly attentive to the occasional need for the actors to move among us. The lighting and sounds were used to direct the audience's attention when the action moved to a new area but it all felt very low key, with no rushing back and forth. Often action was taking place in adjacent sets so our attention just followed the actors as they moved. I noticed the director Chris mingling unassumingly with the audience, paying just as close attention as he had done in the rehearsal. I wanted to go up and ask him if he had to stop himself from interrupting the performance and asking them to try something again. The concentration of the actors was just incredible. They focussed so entirely on each other and seemed utterly unaware of our presence. Louisa and Cissy brush past us to get their hats at the end of lessons as if we were all merely other class members. The direction makes wonderful use of the space; twice Bounderby stalks the length of the mill, once with Louisa and once alone, both times his coat tails fluttering behind as he disappears into the shadows, a powerfully dramatic departure.

What I enjoyed most about the performance was the way it flowed so beautifully. The lack of dividers made the mill feel like just one set, not a series of mini-sets. Unlike a stage play where the curtains close for a scene change and chop the performance into pieces, this felt like one continuous piece of theatre (I was sorry for the interlude, though I am sure the actors needed the break). Even when not participating in a scene the actors were often still on set, unmoving and unspeaking, continuing to be part of the whole. At one point, when Mrs Sparsit has fainted and is carried into the bank, the action moved from the central area back to the Gradgrind living room. I remained where I was on a bench as the rest of the audience followed, and I found that the scene left behind in relative darkness continued silently, without audience, as Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit prepared to re-enter the fray a few moments later.

The experience was so unlike watching a play on a stage as to be almost a different art form. I enjoyed being able to walk through the sets and look closely at the details ... a letter on Gradgrind's desk is addressed and stamped with a Victorian stamp, and being able to see that the tea was real tea and Bounderby really ate his dinner. The scale of the cast was an important part of the whole effect, the role of the Community Company was vital to creating the atmosphere, lots of people milling around, often just passing through, apparently on their way somewhere else, as if life really was still going on while the Gradgrinds go through their family crisis. The feeling of intimacy was enthralling, being so close to the performance made it so much more intense. With actors and audience sharing the same space I felt almost part of the story. I was sorry when they came on to take a bow, it broke the spell. I wanted them to just vanish quietly into the night, to be able to imagine their stories continuing, thrust back into the twenty-first century street I wanted to hear the sound of clogs clattering down the cobbles into the dark.

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