Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On Sitting In High Chairs

Exeunt’s cogent, reasonable (perhaps a little *too* reasonable even) defence of their Mayerling review to the gruff, ballet-going trolls, makes really fascinating reading. It speaks to all sorts of concerns: what sort of things critics should deal with in their reviews, how class divisions beset all sorts of artistic communities, and how best to respond to people being a little bit nasty about you (*spoiler: be smarter and lovelier than them*).

I thought their response showed tremendous integrity. Holding their hands up to concerns about ageism (I’d be really surprised if the “unprecedented number of emails” came in large part from elderly ballet-goers offended by a critic who might have noticed their liver spots, but that’s by-the-by), whilst defending their right to be a different sort of publication, one that offers reviews that, unlike the majority of other sources of theatre criticism, don’t pretend to be by a robot who wasn’t in the room at all with any of the people in that room and who didn’t have any prejudices at all coming into that room. Their reviews are what all good theatre criticism should aspire to be (in my opinion), an attempt to get the reader closer towards the feeling of being in the room: nose in the air of it, ears and eyes and liver-spotted hands in the mix.

So, to ignore the structural stuff that makes up your perspective on the show seems an absurdity. If someone next to you is farting the whole way through the show, for god’s sake WHY should you not mention it? It doesn’t have to be the headline, but theatre criticism only gets close to the texture of people’s actual messy experiences of being in a theatre when it tries to pin down the boredom, the messiness, the fizzinesses, the disappointments, and, yes, the farts.

Anyway, anyway, what I want to add to the throng of opinion is that theatre’s structures – their architected, objectness rather than anything to do with their audiences, rude or otherwise – can negate all the pretence towards outreach, access, desire for live performance of any sort to be some sort of proletarian, woke, political gathering.

Off-West End and subsidised theatre’s do much, in comparison to private theatres at least, to find ways to provide cheaper tickets to those who we really should want in these spaces. The majority of subsidised theatres in London seem, from their websites and their ticketing provisions, really interested in finding ways to get students, under-25s, and the unwaged into their theatres (I’m going to skim over the facile reality that the unwaged, no matter how cheap you make the tickets, are exceptionally unlikely to be able to pop across London to take in some theeeeeeatre).

But a couple of things make these provisions unsatisfactory, in my opinion, and particularly the Royal Opera House (ROH for those in the kn–-wankers).

I’ve been going to the ROH since I was 18, often alone and exclusively off my own back. My parents, as lovely as they are, are not in the slightest taken in by Verdi. But it was something I wanted to try to understand, to get to grips with what other people saw. I liked the music but I hadn’t the foggiest what people liked about the experience. Then I saw Madame Butterfly, and the Humming Chorus had me in tears, for no comprehensible reason. A staid, trite love-story hit some part of me I didn’t know worked that way and I got a bit lost in it.

I saw Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works recently and I came out beaming, properly brimful of happiness: I had more fun in a ballet – an effing BALLET – than in any theatre event I can remember. There were lazers and projections and that recording of Virginia sounding silly and posh. It was complete magic.

But I only saw half of it. In both of them. Because I was in the cheap seats. So profoundly the cheap seats that there weren’t seats. I was standing, right at the back of the auditorium, as high up as you can get, because the tickets were all I could afford.

When I first did this, there was something quite romantic about it. I quite liked the idea, like a terrible Flaubert character, of being the grubby aesthete, craning their head at the top of the building.

But as with many elements of not having very much money, the romance of it fades tremendously quickly. I still buy those cheap tickets when I go to the ROH, they are, objectively, a bargain. A fiver for a piece of world-class opera or ballet, whatever the angle you’re seeing it from, is an extraordinary gift.

However, and this is a big however: I made it through the rain. I was a time-rich student, a performance enthusiast, and really keen to make a go of the whole lot of it. I was willing to ignore my position in the building, the fact that, when going to get some tap water during the interval that I had to walk past all the beautiful people drinking champagne in a glass cathedral (that’s a properly not hyperbolic description, if you haven’t been, it’s worth it just to see that bit, it’s an ACTUAL glass cathedral for the wealthy. But maybe pop in on a Tuesday morning when it’s free from-- how did Anna Winter put oh so accurately that it hurt my sides-- the “braying denizens of Barnes” [God, I love that].)

I’m constantly struck, when unable to see half the stage during a show, whether at the Opera House, the Court, the Almeida, the Old Vic, by the reality that the sightlines in the theatres of London were designed so that the royal box and the aristocracy around it, should be able to see better than those anywhere else in the room. The Royal Gaze, and the plebiscus around it, is made manifest most clearly in a place that can so often, to those most welcome, feel like an artistic idyll and to those feeling most neglected, feel like an alienating roomful of people seeing something you aren’t.
I understand the theatres exist, they are built, there is money in the brickwork that can’t be unspent. The design is the design. They can’t all have the enlightened style of the Barbican. I even partly accord with people who suggest that part of the romance of these theatres is just how beautifully old and ornate and stable a part of London’s ecology they are. I get that.

But what more surefire way to turn off someone who has given opera or ballet a stab, given up their evening and taken a punt on a five pound ticket (never mind that these tickets sell out within days of their release, so you’d only be able to take a very well-prepared punt) than to send them to the very top of the building, make them stand, unable to see most of the stage, while all the well-healed richer people in the stalls gaze knowingly at the dazzling performances? How are people supposed to enjoy the full effects of a performance medium, if they can’t actually see it?

All well and good for the wealthy to talk about how much these are a media for everyone, that if the working-class would only give it a chance they might learn something from it, but my response would be, ok, well, give up all the boxes in every performance, prime of place, for people who have never been to an opera or a ballet before, don’t shove them out of sight and expect them to come back.

Which brings me full-circle to Mayerling. I took my sister to the ballet last week. She’d never seen a ballet before. Never been to the ROH. She was excited – by the big glass conservatory as much as anything else (her joyful amazement re-amazed me, it was lovely).

Then we took our seats, in the upper slips. Actual seaty seats! [Well, cushioned benches, actually-- armrests are bourgeois]. And the lights went down, as lights do. And the curtain rose, as curtains do. And then, and then...

For the first half hour, we kept leaning as far as possible forward trying to see the action, but after that we had to give up, forced to be content to occasionally glimpse the elbows of the action. Pas de deux came and went and I saw some very lovely extras and some very nice occasional bits of limb and I’m informed the show was a triumph.

But every time the dancing moved beyond downstage centre, we couldn’t see it. We could see the empty seats, out of my price range, in the stalls (tickets for Don Carlo, currently on sale, are available between £49 and a staggering-- actually, sickening for a subsidised space-- £245) but maybe a third of the action.

I felt bad. Really bad. Maybe I could have spent more than the tenner I had. I should have done. But I know from experience that anything under £20 in that space will either get you a standing seat as high up as you can go, or a seat on the side where you can’t see anything. And ours weren’t even the worst seats.

My sister was very lovely about the two intervals (she really is wonderfully positive, everyone should get to go to the theatre with her) but I'm not sure she enjoyed it very much. Hell, I’m not even sure I really enjoyed it properly. There was a pretty magical final bit, before the posh horrible bloke killed the woman and himself* where the dancing seemed to break down and undo itself and exhaust itself in a syphilitic burst of wild, risky undance. But that was about it. I couldn’t review it, because I didn’t see most of it.

And this is not just the ROH – though it is a particularly effulgent target, with its subsidies, its ludicrously lavish productions, and its fairly silly sponsorship by Coutts – it is theatre in general. I mentioned briefly the design's blocking of my view at The Almeida last week, or Restricted View seats at the Old Vic--  I’ve not been to that many football matches, but I don’t remember there being huge poles in the way of the goal blocking the fans’ view-- and the same thing has happened countless times to me on The National's stages, for Christ’s sake, where a show has been blocked so that the action recedes into the back of the stage: all well and good for those downstairs, or for the director, or for the pictures put up online, not so much for those without the night off and a couple of hundred quid sloshing about in their foxfur-lined pockets (OH, I JUST HAD TO YOU TWEEDY KNOBS. JUST YOU TRY AND SUE ME FOR DEFAMATION, I’LL MAKE THEM RIFLE THROUGH YOUR FOX-STUFFED WARDROBES AND THEN WHO’LL BE LAUGHING.)

I understand that it’s an economic business; unsold seats are money down the drain. But if the seats aren’t good enough for the denizens of Barnes, why the hell would they be good enough for someone on a lower income? You can't pretend you care about them coming, construct a whole structure around them to make them feel as unwelcome as possible, passively or otherwise, then be disappointed when they don't come back or don't tell their friends about it.

You can see, given all that, why people would rather stay in and watch Netflix. And that really is the competition. Theatres will lose, in the long run, unless they start caring more about the fact that watching only half of a show, even a masterpiece, is just shit.  

*The gender politics of applauding a pretty blatant act of very beautifully performed domestic violence felt odd, but that’s probably an ill-informed reading, and one I'm sure more well-informed people would take issue with, so I'll retract it as soon as saying it. [Which doesn't mean I didn't think it and don't still.]

P.S. Apologies, over and over, for the woefully London-centric approach: I hope it isn't too grating for those outside this environment, it's just the closest tool at hand, I promise.

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