Like an obsessive gambler forever chasing that elusive win, we all chase the big one: that big moment (or it could be a small one) in the theatre where everything else melts into the background and you are suddenly aware that there is nowhere on earth you’d rather be than right here, right now. It’s made even more special by knowing that this moment may never, ever be repeated, certainly not with this audience: theatre lives in the moment of its (re)-creation that night.
The Times has been running a series, “Great moments in the theatre”, and last weekend’s entry saw Benedict Nightingale waxing lyrical about Ian McKellen’s 1976 RSC Macbeth. I’m sorry I missed it, but (a) I wasn’t in the UK at the time; and (b) I was only 14, and the theatre bug was yet to bite (though it was about to do so, of more anon, in the place that I actually was being brought up, which was Johannesburg, South Africa).
But more than that, it is reading things like this that makes me realise how much I am already going to miss Benedict, too, one of the finest of his or any hour, who signed off as chief theatre critic of The Times two weeks ago.
As he describes McKellen’s performance, you feel you are there: “We watched Macbeth disintegrate pore by unwilling pore. McKellen was terrific when confronted with Banquo’s ghost, combining laughing bravado, foaming rage and grotesque mimickry of the genial host. But I also remember him towards the end, waxen, blinking, more corpse than man, reviving only for the odd, random outburst of disgust, anger or violence. A potentially great man had committed suicide of the soul.” Theatre may be an intrinsically ephemeral art, but it is given permanence by writing like this.
The Observer, too, has been running “The Best Performance I’ve Ever Seen”, a terrific series in which it invites various theatre practitioners to nominate and describe one that has affected them. John Tiffany, currently represented by his production of Peter Pan for the National Theatre of Scotland that is running now at the Barbican, tells of the impact of seeing Robert Lepage’s Tectonic Plates in Glasgow in 1990 - and how it literally changed the course of his life. “It made me want to be a theatre director - it blew my mind. I was studying science at the time, at Glasgow university. I found Tectonic Plates contemporary and yet epic…. Lepage makes the epic intimate, accessible and human. He made me realise that theatre was by far the best way of telling stories. We began in a Montreal library, then the light suddenly changed and the books became the Manhattan skyline. The audience gasped. I loved the simplicity. And yet there was nothing literal about it. I remember thinking: I want to tell stories like this. Lepage influenced my ambition as a director. I want to create magic for people and for them to see how it is done. I want audiences to recognise that magic can be found in the ordinary.”
Of course, theatre is often a kind of alchemy where the magic that happens in the transaction of sitting in the dark watching strangers pretend to be someone else can’t be so easily seen, let alone described: it simply seeps somehow into your very soul. There’s a transformational moment in many of our lives when this process happens first, and from that moment we are hooked forever. I can remember precisely when it first happened to me: as I mentioned earlier, I was brought up in South Africa, and I was barely 14 when I was taken on a school trip to see Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the Andre Huguenot Theatre in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The lights went down - and there were no titles. This wasn’t a movie, but a living, breathing play. And I was living through it, even if its leading character began the play by seeking to escape life. Something touched my adolescent soul as never before; it’s still a play I love fiercely, but as I have seen it over the years, I wonder just how a 14-year-old boy, who had not yet experienced the pain and terror of obsessive sexual love and painful rejection (both of which I have gone on to experience first hand), related to it so immediately.
Perhaps it is because, like all great theatre, it takes you into another world and makes you feel what it like to be on the inside track of other people’s lives: there’s almost an act of transference in the best kind of theatre, so you feel that you are living it yourself. Playwrights make us see things differently - and sometimes even live differently. The American Theatre Wing recently published “The Play That Changed My Life”, a wonderful book of essays and interviews with leading contemporary American playwrights, in which they explain which plays have most influenced them.
Howard Sherman, executive director of the Wing, explains in a foreword how he came to conceive and commission the book. It turns out he’d had his own Deep Blue Sea moment: “I have long known the precise moment the theatre bug truly hit me: a rainy night, no school homework, a friend with a car, available student rush tickets at the Yale Rep - which led me unaware into the world of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and out of the drama club repertoire of The Odd Couple and Bye Bye Birdie. To say that nothing prepared me for the gothic, supremely dysfunctional family drama that played out before me would be an understatement. These people had issues that far surpassed anything in my own experience, and here wasn’t a therapist in sight. These folks were funny, they were scary, they were dying, both literally and spiritually - and indeed ne, as the title told me, was already dead. To this day, I can still call up in my mind’s eye flashes of the show.”
One of them, he goes, on was of a man who, “in order to terrorize and violate a young woman”, inserted “what in my memory was his entire hand into the mouth of this terrified girl.” And Howard says, this was “my thunderbolt, when my passion for theatre burst into full being.” He speculated that creative artists of the theatre surely had their own similar stories to tell; and as executive director of the American Wing, he had a chance to get them to tell them by commissioning this book. As he puts it, “a key element of the Wing’s mission is to give voice to artists talking about their craft and their careers.” And that’s precisely what they do in numerous podcasts and videos that are available on the Wing’s brilliant website, www.americantheatrewing.org.
This book extends that living archive by putting between soft covers the transformational experiences that led some 19 leading American dramatists to do what they do. A 20th, Edward Albee, offers an introduction to the book that gets right to its heart: the plays that changed his life, he says, are “probably the seventy-five masterpieces written throughout history, and the hundreds and hundreds of lesser works that have taught me what not to do.” But the one that started it all? “When I was six years old, I was taken to the now non-existent Hippodrome Theatre in New York City to see a musical called Jumbo. It starred Jimmy Durante and a small elephant, who resembled each other considerably, though Mr Durante had more lines. The score, as I recall, was by Rodgers and Hart, and had lots of good stuff. I think what hooked me - and this was long before I knew it had hooked me - was the total unreality of the experience becoming absolute reality. The absolute suspension of disbelief which took my six-year-old mind by storm. My first Chekhov, my first Beckett, my first whatever else, were revelatory experiences. But I have to go back to Durante and this little elephant for the true genesis.”