Nassim Solemanpour’s Blind Hamlet played to packed houses at the CPH festival in Copenhagen last week. ‘I think I read that there aren’t any actors in this’; I overheard one audience member mutter giddily as she took her seat in the wonderful Grob theatre.
The production, which features the voice of the playwright on a Dictaphone, a stage manager (my Danish debut!) and seven members of the audience chosen at random, was (according to our hosts) quite avant-garde in Denmark.
This resulted in a brilliantly fiery post-show discussion with Nassim, in which the audience debated some fundamental questions; what constitutes theatre? What are the ethics of replacing actors with real people? How do we measure the success or failure of a play which relies on the participation of non-professionals?
Nassim, who has been exploring these questions since his debut play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, described his work like this: (Nassim, forgive me, I’m sure I am paraphrasing..) ‘We invented boats, bikes, trains and cars. Mankind became adept at getting around. But for some, there remained a fascination with what else may be out there. Perhaps one day, we would fly. Many people died in pursuit of this dream. Their ideas didn’t always work. But should the risk of failure prevent them from trying? Should they learn to find contentment with what they have, or should they risk everything on an idea that is new, untested and uncertain of success.’ This, Nassim argued, is what happens when artists attempt to push the boundaries of form.
In the case of Blind Hamlet, it is easy to feel that when the participants are lively, charismatic and ‘up for it’, the performance has been a success, but when they are slightly shy or reserved, the show has failed somehow. But I’m not sure this is true. The central conceit of the play is one which relinquishes a certain degree of control to its players. We must then accept their choices. Whether they are bubbly or quiet, they are indisputably themselves. This honesty I find incredibly compelling to watch.
This isn’t the first time since starting with ATC that I have found myself considering the impact of having non actors on stage, having toured to New York with David Greig’s The Events earlier in the year. The play had a different live choir on stage every night, sometimes up to forty five people. These choirs came from all sorts of different backgrounds, from groups of singing lawyers to anti-capitalist activists. The show felt incredibly different every night depending on the energy the choir brought to the stage. As with Blind Hamlet, I think it is a lazy to analyse these performances as being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than one another. If anything, the variety that non-actors bring to the stage helps to unlock the complexities and layers within these two wonderful pieces of writing. African-American gospel choirs in The Events makes us think about the play (set in Scotland, inspired by a mass shooting in Norway) in terms of racial tensions in America. Nervous or hesitant players in Blind Hamlet draw distinct parallels with Shakespeare’s ever-anxious protagonist.
One of the reasons for limiting the number of times a choir could perform in The Events, or ensuring that the selection of players in Blind Hamlet is entirely random, is an attempt to harness something illusive and fragile. Realness, being utterly, unselfconsciously present in any moment is a very delicate thing. The second it is named, it disappears.
One might argue that we encounter real people doing ordinary things every day, and that the theatre is a place for the extra-ordinary and the elevated. But we rarely take time in our daily lives to really observe the people around us with critical distance. For example, audiences and choirs alike are often moved to tears by the final scene of The Events. But while we may not experience direct empathy with the person crying next to us in the auditorium, watching a choir member have an emotional reaction on stage tends to elicit a very powerful response. It’s a question of directed gaze, which can transform the familiar into something incredibly compelling.
Reflecting on my own process as a director, many of these same questions of authenticity occur. It’s striking that delicate balance between a performance which is confident and assured and still maintains the liveness and danger of the first read-through. It’s choosing costumes for the actors, and finding that nothing looks quite right, and that actually, I’ve fallen in love with the baggy jumper they wore to rehearsals. It’s an actor making a wonderful mistake with a line, deciding to keep it in the show, and then realising that it’s already dead, that you can never recapture it, and it will never be as brilliant or as funny again.
No theatre lover can deny the immense power of being transported to a different world. But as a maker, constantly analysing how things have been put together, I often find it difficult to suspend my disbelief, and so these experiences are rare for me. My transcendent theatre moments tend not to be induced by spectacle or illusion, but rather in tiny glimpses of realness that allow me to feel more deeply connected to the world and the people around me. Theatre is about the journey that the actors and the audience go on together. As Ramin puts it, theatre doesn’t happen on stage, but rather in ‘the heads and the hearts of the people in the room.’
I have been guilty of cynical eye-rolling when actors (usually after far too many drinks) say things like ‘I don’t act, I just tell the truth’. But perhaps there’s something to it. I have been hugely inspired by the experience of working with non-actors, and will continue to strive for those transfixing moments of honesty and ordinariness when working with professionals. Don’t get me wrong, I have immeasurable respect for the craft of actors, and am in no way advocating their replacement by mere mortals. Rather, what I am searching for is a breakdown of the barriers between actor and audience, between stage and auditorium, between reality and fiction.
But all of these theories rest on a pin-head. It’s a precarious balancing act, and a question which I’m not sure can be answered in absolutes. Hopefully I have many years ahead of me to try and figure it out.