Every time I see a play I wonder at the age of the audience, still being young enough myself to consider most of them significantly older. The fact that I’ve made this observation over many years means that it doesn’t appear to portend theatrical doom. Does it say something about me? Is there an optimum age for an art form? Is there a limit beyond which one will never come to appreciate something?
Two recent experiences brought these thoughts to mind. The first was last Saturday, the second half of which was devoted to John Adams. I’d been aware of him and associated him with the minimalists Reich, Riley and Glass, while never really investigating his music properly. This changed when I saw the recent film I Am Love with Tilda Swinton, featuring a lot of Adams on the soundtrack. In interviews Swinton stressed the importance of the music in the construction of the film and it is deployed well. Thereafter I was primed to find out more about his music and booked tickets to the UK premiere of a documentary and the European premiere of his new opera. It was later announced that there would be a pre-show talk between the film and the opera.
That day I was at a ‘technical’ event (described elsewhere) in Holborn. Seeking a virtuous approach, I decided to walk from there to the Barbican, using my phone to give me directions. Yet again I’m reminded of how quickly the ambience changes across neighbourhoods in that London. A little early, I lazed around in the rather pleasing cafe of the two new Barbican cinemas. Two teachers besides me on the sofa were discussing their difficulties:
The plan is to move key stage 3 to September, and there won’t be any rooms in which to teach them.
The film was introduced by the director Mark Kidel and John Adams himself, who lightly contradicted the former, saying that some images fitted his ideas of the music and some didn’t. Adams said he was feeling rather homesick so he would stay and watch the film. They both sat in the row in front of me, so I could glance over at them in search of their reactions. Lots of people left early to be in time for the pre-opera talk, especially after Adams himself left. This disconcerted the director. As it turned out, there was plenty of time. I went in, directed by an usher who kept repeating the same beckoning motion and phrase – “seats over to the right, please”. It was odd to see Adams from much further away, compared with his proximity in the cinema. Peter Sellars was also there and his answers to the questions felt like orations in their own right. He was smiling a lot and also very intense in his responses.
There were twenty minutes in which to eat and try to find a present for a four-year-old, while I observed the masses milling around, increasingly harried. As usual, the stern warnings about being on time proved to be misleading. The man sitting next to me seemed amazed by my knowledge of where to sit, until I pointed out the numbers shown on each seat arm. Behind me was quite a talkative group:
I said to her, ‘I’m never going to sit through something like Death in Venice again’, and I find myself sitting through Death in Venice again.
Is it shameful not to have seen an opera until my age? Up until now I’d had a pat opera opinion, along the lines of liking the music and disliking the singing. It is certainly shameful to hold forth without having experienced the category in question first hand, hence my Barbican trip. Unlike my recent larcenous musical adventure, I could legitimately take it all in. The staging was very simple, just a platform, table and blocks forming chairs, so not too many distractions. The music was dramatic and as before I found that seeing the performers did add something. I like the rhythm of different parts of the orchestra taking prominence at different times. As always, at the interval I listened out for the verdicts of those around me. The talkative group behind me weren’t impressed:
The lyrics are dreadful, so literal. You need French or German.
They repeat the lines, and we got it the first time.
There’s something slightly absurd about it.
My banana eaten, I didn’t know where to put it because I couldn’t see any bins. I asked the kindly looking man bearing the Barbican logo and he said I should just put it down, because the cleaners would pick it up. This sounded a little wrong, but he insisted. When things like this happen I remember what the lady said during the architectural tour I went on at the New Year – unlike most other large cultural institutions, the Barbican is not suffering from large funding problems.
The second half was more intense and more popular with my complaining neighbours. The acting was much better than the grotesquely exaggerated hamminess I had feared, as were the movements around the stage. I found I was able to suspend my disbelief such that I didn’t mind the lyrical repetitions, which are after all hardly unknown in song. It was the first time I’d seen surtitles, and that system worked very well. Opera, then – in summary, not to be dismissed.
The following Thursday I wanted to see the NT Live showing of Alan Bennett’s People. It was sold out at my local cinema, so I had to go to the Kensington Odeon instead. Here, my observations of an elderly audience for theatre were doubly reinforced, although in front of me sat a young couple with a large vat of popcorn, one of them braying with laughter. I’d heard relatively negative or at best whelmed opinions about the play itself, so my expectations were fairly muted. The cinema audience were enjoying it greatly and I was carried along with them. During the interval, an old couple in front of me deployed the bottle of wine they’d brought along specially, using their own oddly patterned glasses. The oenophilic theme extended to the ushers, who were selling those small wine bottles seen on trains, as well as ice cream, from their trays. Someone asked his companion:
Am I right in thinking you’re not enjoying it?
Sad to say, I didn’t hear the answer.
Unlike the Adams opera, I felt the second half of the play was a little flat. Frances de la Tour’s performance is wonderful and she carries what is ultimately a rather unbalanced play. Bennett’s vehemence against the National Trust does not sit well and is too unfocussed to deliver a satisfying drama. As with my previous NT Lives – Frankenstein and One Man, Two Guvnors – I was glad to have seen it, even if I do still seem to be a little young. It’s amusing that the cinema audience claps along, as if the actors on the stage at the South Bank can hear them.
Will someone inform me when I’ve reached the correct age for such entertainments?