A friend was telling me about a performance she had recently attended at Shakespeare’s Globe. She was a guest of one of the actors. It was mid-week during a very busy time and, while she wanted to be there, she was also half-wishing for a quiet evening at home. The play was Titus Andronicus – pretty uncompromising stuff, particularly in Lucy Bailey’s production. By the interval, she had realised that she needed to find a way of engaging with the performance, or simply go home. She decided to stay.
She met her actor friend in the bar afterwards. He told her that immediately he had entered the stage he had spotted her leaning wearily on her husband and had directed his entire performance specifically in her direction. She was astonished to realise that not only was she identifiable at such a distance but that his assertion – “if I could get you [onside], I would also have got everyone else in the theatre” – had been borne out by her own experience and the crowd’s reaction at the end.
My friend understands about live performance. She is aware that performers can sense the energy of the audience but had no idea of what that meant in practice. She was surprised, too, to discover the extent to which a performer might sometimes be in a position to affect it in such a specific way.
This is arguably more difficult to do mid-opera than mid-play. I’ve often looked at the backstage monitor at the Royal Opera to see who is sitting in the stalls directly behind the conductor. It’s generally very keen people, pleasingly electrified by their proximity to the action. Occasionally there is someone who drank too much wine with dinner and who is having a snooze, unaware that he (usually) is visible to the entire stage. It’s quite funny, and no doubt he would be mortified to realise he was being so closely observed. But consider what it does to the energy of the show if every time anyone onstage looks in the direction of the conductor, they see that person who has lost the will to stay awake. If someone is unconscious there’s not a lot that any of us can do, but in the case of my friend watching Titus, energy directed towards her arguably influenced her choice to stay to the end. Who hasn’t arrived at a show feeling wrung out, only to be caught up in the performance and leave feeling revived, wondering what happened?
This energy is, of course, hard to see but its ebb and flow is the powerful stuff of live performance, for good or ill. A mobile phone going off can kill a performer’s and audience’s concentration, and crash the energy of a carefully crafted scene. An actor forgetting his lines creates anxiety for everyone, but a brilliant ad lib or ‘rescue’ can generate excitement that has us all leaning in to see what’s coming next.
A last-minute cover thrown into an established cast can be like an energetic hand-grenade if there hasn’t been much rehearsal. This happens more frequently in opera than in theatre, particularly if a production has been revived regularly – it’s a case of taking whomever is available among the singers who have done the show in the past. The in-the-moment negotiations that take place under the nose of the audience may not be directly visible, but the sense of something going on adds a frisson that even live recordings can’t capture.
I recently heard a doom-laden prediction that in a couple of decades’ time, actors on film could all be digital and there may be no need for the real thing. Let’s hope that the invigorating magic of live performance remains more difficult to conjure electronically.