The audience is just five-strong. A nightmare for your regular theatre space. But for the huddle leaning in over their pints to hear the stark monologue of one man’s heartbreak, it’s probably just pushing decency.
In a wily experiment, Glasgow-based theatre company Heroes have bypassed many of the issues facing cash-strapped emerging theatre-makers by downsizing their production costs and simultaneously throwing out a collection of incentives guaranteed to make their new production one of the most attractive theatrical options in town: 1) a celebrated script from one of contemporary theatre’s biggest names, 2) a well-known local venue , 3) an extravagantly minimalist running time, and 4) a ticket price that is, well… whatever you want it to be.
In the cosy confines of Glasgow’s Sloans pub (est. 1797, all dark wood curlicues and engraved mirrors), Heroes present an intimate, heart-breaking staging of Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall. A 35-minute monologue , originally performed by Sherlock fave Andrew Scott and produced by Paines Plough in 2008. In Heroes’ version, Alan MacKenzie as Alex performa from a table in a hushed corner of the pub, confiding to us the life-changing accident that is eating straight through his soul.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it running time, coupled with a handy post-work 6.30pm start, allows this little theatrical outing to be something of cultural spa; a deep-tissue massage for your brain muscles after a hard day’s emailing. It’s a nice alternative to the usual pre-theatre frenzy of devouring a lukewarm prix-frix while trying to convince yourself you’re a cultural behemoth and don’t just want to go home and hibernate under five layers of blankets with Twitter, a bucket of tea and a share-bag of Doritos.
The micro-audience has its appeal too. We huddle around the pub tabletop, instantly complicit, ready for our collective experience. There’s the feeling of being on the back foot – even for a theatre bore like myself – as we try and adjust ourselves to the idea of the line between performer and spectator being a little more blurred than usual. After all, our main man is huddled with us, loaded with pain, staring us in the eye.
MacKenzie is a measured, engaging performer. He does well to temper Alex’s rage and despair to the setting, maintaining the shell of the warm, contended family man – the man down the pub – even in his angriest moments. He keeps the audience on-side, holding our sympathies with pin-drop silences and helpless gesturing.
The odd thing about a production this small is that it becomes almost as much about the audience as it is about the performance. There are benefits to this. As one audience member mentioned, it felt like we made a new friend in Alex; he was very much ‘one of us’, and being in the pub reminded us of the hidden stories of every face behind every pint glass in there. And yes, pub theatre is at least vaguely more social than locking yourself in a dark auditorium for three hours and calling it an evening out.
But there are drawbacks as well. Sea Wall is a hugely emotional piece, crashing over us like a tsunami, and in this production, I was very conscious of the audience members around me. I was very aware of my own reactions, victim of that odd British idiosyncrasy of not wanting to stand out too much. I wondered, if someone had started crying, would everyone else have cringed in embarrassment? Ignored them? Laughed? And if this is true for me – who has been known to dive head-first into every immersive theatre experience going – would this über-intimacy scare off less-seasoned theatregoers?
For me there’s a freedom that comes with being enveloped in a dark auditorium while something heart-wrenching is being played out onstage; the freedom to disengage from normality, from the people around you, from the outside world, and experience a very immediate connection between yourself and the story being presented. It’s refreshing, cathartic, emotional. It’s hard to capture this in such a small group, where the intimacy of the pub is a different kind; a kind that wants us to change the subject or give Alex a hug or buy another round. With this piece, the fourth wall isn’t broken; it’s just a wee bit rickety, and we can’t help but temper our enjoyment with a feeling of uncertainty.
And if it’s awkward making eye-contact with strangers, it’s doubly awkward to get your wallet out and make a judgement call on how much a piece of theatre is worth in front of five pairs of waiting eyes. Pay-As-You-Decide is a good idea. As someone suffering from pre-payday bankruptcy, it’s a great idea. At the same time, is my fiver enough, if the guy behind me thinks it was worth twenty? Am I a rubbish theatre-goer or just a cheapskate? Is the pressure to decide a price as off-putting as the pressure to pay stupid money for art? Probably not, but it’s still a pressure, and another curve-ball for curious potential-theatregoers.
The thing with experiments though, especially in this industry, especially now, is that they are always good. Theatre needs shaking up, changed, maybe beyond recognition, and companies like Heroes should be applauded for doing so – if they learn from it.
For me, maybe this experiment would have worked better with a comedy piece, or with a slightly bigger audience, or on a beach in the South of France (for thematic reasons, honest). But in exchange for the loss of intimacy I felt, I found a greater appreciation for the art and bravery of the actor; for the delicate weaving of Stephens’ script. Certainly Heroes’ Sea Wall experience will get audience-members and theatre-makers thinking, maybe it will even influence their own practice and understanding. For (round about) a fiver, that can’t be a bad thing.
For more information on Heroes and Sea Wall, click here.