Strange As Your Life

by Pip Williams

Back at the beginning of all this, I wrote a thing for this website about the future of theatre as I saw it, because I was the guy to ask, obviously.

I think I said a lot of stuff about collaborative imagination, about making room for everyone’s futures, about making spaces for play, etc.

That was a while ago though. That was back when I thought that this would all be done with by Christmas. Before so many theatres had to close forever and my friends lost their jobs and every single thing I had in my diary for 2020 got cancelled.

It’s become clear that the re-thinking of live performance is going to have to be vaster, more uncomfortable and more thorough than any of us realised; that everything we knew about theatre, about the act of congregation, about intimacy, about walls and rooms, is going to have to be re-thought (and this is not to mention the numerous structural inequalities apparent in almost all of our theatres and our theatrical culture as a whole that are also in need of a stern reckoning). It’s become clear that the projects that I and many of my friends and contemporaries want to do are going to have to be totally different in form and delivery than we thought. Or they’re not going to happen at all.

And it is going to take ages.

But I went to the theatre the other day.

For the first time since, what, March?, I went in through some big doors and a nice person in a visor pointed me to a seat and I watched people pretend to be other people on a stage for an hour and a half or so.

It was a performance of two Alan Bennett monologues, Nights In The Garden Of Spain and Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet (performed respectively by Tamsin Greig and Maxine Peake), at The Bridge Theatre.

I’m not a huge fan of Alan Bennett, and I am not a fan at all of the Bridge, but a friend was able to wangle me outrageously discounted tickets and I’m very experience-starved, and I do like Tamsin Greig, so I went along on my own.

It was, suffice it to say, an odd experience.

To begin with the pieces themselves…

Bennett seems an uninspiring, if unsurprising, choice for the playwright to spearhead the return of live theatre. As said, I have nothing specifically against him (hey, I enjoyed The History Boys as much as the next guy), but his particular brand of bittersweet, slightly cosy, observational un-drama seems to point, right now, more towards a desire to bury oneself in nostalgia, in a world of magnolias and lino and Alex Jennings, than towards a desire to reimagine a landscape. Perhaps a shorter way of saying that is, it’s not really my thing.

I was surprised then at the two short monologues’ capacity to make me laugh and to move me. Nights… is a startlingly dark piece about Rosemary, a repressed housewife who strikes up a friendship with a woman charged with murdering her abusive husband. It’s pretty stark in its description of sexual coercion, the justice system and physical violence, and the depiction of blossoming female friendship is very beautifully realised.

This is all helped of course by the performance of, if you’ll allow me, Underrated National Treasure Tamsin Greig. She has a quality of total openness that is always incredibly captivating, that feels almost dangerous in its vulnerability; a clown who might well burst into tears when she falls; a tragedian with a banana skin behind her back.

It was a performance weighted with hidden sadness, a raw and delicate portrayal of a woman whose inner life is brought into bloom by the experience of someone else, and left devastated by the absence of that experience; the jokes that tailed into silence, the fidgeting hands, the glances for reassurance at the audience. At one point a therapist comes to help her deal with the trauma of seeing a dead body, and proceeds to boast about the number of dead bodies they’ve seen themselves. Greig wonders, wide-eyed, whether this is part of the therapy. Again, her experience is subsumed, side-lined in favour of a bigger picture. Hers is a character whose life has been lived in a comfortable shadow, whose merit is in her anonymity.

When she landed a gag, it felt like we were being allowed into something very intimate and personal and warm; and when the tears came, finally, that intimacy, that letting-in felt uncomfortable, intrusive. When she walked offstage at the end, in front of a starry backdrop, you almost wanted to call her back, to ask if she needed anything.

Miss Fozzard… in contrast was a far more straightforwardly comic piece, with a fantastically peppery performance from Peake (getting more mustard out of the line “A woman? In chiropody?” than certainly I would’ve thought possible). It concerned a somewhat uptight soft-furnishings saleswoman, suddenly the talk of the town owing to her new chiropodist’s kinky proclivities. Again, it was a piece about the surprises of having a life, of having experiences, a point emphasised by her interactions with her brother, who is recovering from a stroke and largely housebound, “skirting around” his words and watching TV. Peake’s was a performance of beautiful, blissful control, every stiffness and every thawing perfectly calibrated, a really masterful bit of storytelling, ending on a very neat and satisfying gag before she strutted offstage into a life of sexual liberation and independence.

But we’re not watching these pieces in a vacuum, are we? It is impossible to put any work of theatre, indeed any work of art, out there right now and it not to become a statement of some sort about the time that we are living through. In the current climate, the pieces both struck me as being essentially about experience; about the strangeness of it; about those moments where we are confronted by that which is other, which is unfamiliar, and that which has the capacity to change us. Both women have their lives opened and their horizons expanded by encounters with people, or encounters with events beyond their ken. And in encountering, they themselves discover what they’re capable of; “People never think you’ve got a life,” Miss Fozzard muses at one point in the second monologue. “I didn’t know I had a life.”

It’s a rather melancholy idea right now. There’s so little that’s new at present, so little in our daily experience (or mine, at any rate) that has the power to change us. I was only being partly flippant at the beginning of this piece when I said I was experience-starved; I think we all are. I’ve encountered little, in isolation (and in tiers two and three) that has made me realise the depths of myself, which has challenged my preconceptions about anything. It was heartening yet slightly bittersweet, then, watching a play, which is by definition, one could argue, a record of change, the history of a turning point- in a life, in a culture, in an environment.

It felt odd to watch that sat two metres away from everyone else, wearing a mask, my breath from under it steaming up my glasses.

The whole thing felt unsettling.

After months of bingeing TV and films and watching endless YouTube videos it felt like a strange con-trick of some sort, watching real people in the same room as me, pretending to be other people again. Part of my brain kept thinking “You don’t fool me, I know that’s actually Tamsin Greig.” I felt briefly like I’d forgotten what a play was. Like I’d forgotten how to relax or how to concentrate. Maybe even how to believe, how to think about believing. Possibly that’s a bit dramatic, but it certainly felt like I was re-learning something, like bits of my brain were clicking into life that had all but seized up.

It emphasised the magic trick that is performance, that is theatre; or maybe not the magic trick, the ceremony, the rites. Once you’re in this building, different rules apply. Once the lights do this, you have to think like this. I think it’s going to be very hard to re-learn those rituals, to be honest.

It was nice, admittedly, to arrive in a theatre with my own context again. And to lose that context for an hour and a half. To arrive over-caffeinated, anxious about the week ahead, anxious about the various jobs I have to do, and then to lose my ego for a bit. To hand over control to the person on the stage (and the very, very nice front of house staff, God fucking bless them all).

I just think we’re going to need to be a bit more honest about what theatre’s for and what it can actually do, in the coming months and years. Are we using it to try and escape, to simply entertain, or indeed to allow us to pretend that what’s happening outside isn’t happening? Is the idea that we’re supposed to forget that we’re watching it wearing masks, sat metres away from each other, in a theatre at half its capacity? Or are we using theatre to actively interrogate what’s going on, to give us the tools to live through the here and now, to comment on it and to guide us all through it? Do we actually want a theatre that can save lives? Possibly these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Possibly they are.

But we’re past the point of being able to ignore them, I think, and programmers, writers and audiences need to have a good think about the ways in which we’re re-introducing live performance into our ecosystem.

I walked from the theatre to Waterloo, to get my train home, thinking about all this. It’s a good walk to get those things into focus- friends sitting at safe distances outside pubs, joggers along the river, restaurants with plastic dividers between the tables. It’s all changing. And it’s our life now. This is perhaps the kind of event I was talking about earlier, the stuff of the two monologues I saw at the Bridge; the kind of thing that opens us up to ourselves, that broadens and enlightens and liberates us. If plays as a form tell us anything, it is that change is, to coin a boring phrase, the only constant in this life. Strangeness and newness is part of that. To feel unsteady, to feel challenged or on new ground, is to feel alive. Is to be experiencing life in the rawest sense.

I thought about that as a way of tying this up but then I realised I don’t really believe it. Especially walking along the Southbank on a beautiful autumn night, a walk I’ve done countless times in the past with friends and family, going to plays, coming back from plays, coming back from pubs, admiring the river- my abiding feeling currently is not that I am experiencing life or learning about myself. My abiding feeling is sadness, and desperate yearning for the world of eight months ago. It is good that theatres are reopening (for now), and good that conversations about theatre are starting again, in what could be really productive and robust ways. I really hope they will be. And I do truly respect places like the Bridge for putting so much effort into safely reopening, and being so vigilant and audience-facing. But the fact is that it’s all just a bit sad. That for now, we are all still just trying our best, following the rules and waiting it out. Bennett writes in his monologues about the endless potential for experience, the idea that it is never too late, and that the human heart is something forever unfinished, forever opening. I suppose right now those things just seem a little out of reach. But it is valuable to remember that it is theatre’s purpose to remind us of that mutability, of our ever-flowing, ever-unfinished natures. Even when those natures feel as if they’ve been paused somewhat.

At one point, in Nights…, Rosemary walks in a garden with her friend the murderer. She describes the feeling of friendship, of love blooming, and she says “I know what this is.”

“What is it?” her friend replies.