There is a lovely moment in the now legendary Snowshow by Slava Polunin when, during the interval, after the anarchic first half, the clowns engage in a casual non-verbal interaction with the audience. Slowly but surely and without fail (I’ve seen the show four times), they always manage to elicit applause. Not only this, but they proceed to build this applause into a kind of symphony which they conduct, treating us like an orchestra, and we all play along without exception. Having sat in so many other shows where audience participation feels like something inevitably sick-making which we are coerced or embarrassed into, I always admired Slava’s clowns for giving us this moment of joy.
It works of course on the principle of reversed psychology – we are not explicitly asked to participate, the clowns don’t talk. But they set up a transaction in which it feels like we are communicating despite the evident obstacle, and we are, on both sides, compelled to reward and celebrate each other’s effort.
A similar thing happens in Ramin Gray’s production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s play. The variation here is the nature of the obstacle – the verbal element is the only thing present, the protagonist is a disembodied voice talking to us through a recording device. We need to bring a great deal of imagination into the transaction in order to make it work and this is helped along by the author and the director. When the moment comes where we are invited to participate there is a pause in the recording for us to act within. We understand the clock is ticking and we need to fill the pause, so we collaborate in order to keep it going. There’s no time to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. We participate because we understand this is our part of the transaction without which the whole thing will crumble and our enjoyment may be ruined. Among all the other contemporary works of theatre which capitalise on the presence of the audience, this one is possibly unique in its bravery to do away with the actors and bring audience members on the stage instead.
Soleimanpour attempts to justify this absence of the visible actor conceptually by giving us a story – rendered as a radio play – whose protagonist is going blind but wanting to read Hamlet before he loses his sight altogether. Sections of the story are interspersed with instructions aimed at audience members designed to turn them into agents of a dramaturgical and a democratic process which the author considers to be inherent to theatre.
In some ways this works really well as described above, in other ways it feels less satisfying – for example, the way in which the story of the blind man ends abruptly thus boldly rendering the content less important than the form. Because the show depends on the audience, each audience will inevitably make it work (or not) differently. I was lucky to attend a performance which worked really well, but what you get will clearly depend on who and what you go with.