January 2010

There was a saying in the British army in the days of national service when every young man between the ages of 18 and 20 was called up for two years.

‘If you couldn’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.’

Copenhagen is a demanding play on its actors and audiences alike. The story deals with a forever obscured corner of detail in the history of the development of the atomic bomb. The text though, glances at Quantum Mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertaintly Principle, Bohr’s Complimentarity, and takes in plenty of philosophical implication along the way, examining also among many things, patriotism, friendship, loyalty, ambiguity, irony, and danger.

One effect of performing this densely worded text eight times a week is hyper stimulation of the jaw, because none of the three of us ever shut up. Stage time is elastic too. Sometimes the play connects with eternity, and one wishes that Michael Frayn had alowed a stringent editor to overhaul his text. He’s a man who enjoys complexity, intricacy, and extrapolation, and where there is an opportunity for a subjunctive clause, he’ll likely write two or three. Respect though, and praise for undertaking this fascinating examination and giving it dignity on a stage, but skillful cutting of 10% of the text would (in my opinion) turn this very good play into a great one.

A small theatre like Palm Beach Drama Works can be a pleasure to play because if the audience is attentive, performances can achieve that special intensity which only occurs in live theatre and seldom occurs in theatres that seat more than a few hundred. PBDW seats 84, and even though the stage being wider than deep means that the first 4 rows (of five) are watching tennis when there is dialogue from both stage right and left, we have frequently heard the special silence that comes when a group of people don’t want to miss a word. The converse is true too. And when audience members arrive with a few martinis on board, or simply because they have lived for many decades, sometimes they slumber, all visible from the stage.

All in all though, the run here has been a big success. So much so that the theatre added extra performances at every opportunity to cope with demand for tickets and all perfs sold out completely.

For an actor the experience of doing good work in a good production which is popular is about as good as it gets. Sometimes you get one, but to get all three, as has happened here, is a perfect storm. Even so, and even with a good national review in (of all things) The Wall Street Journal, it’s a bit of a desert flower blooming unseen. There was talk of extending the run, of touring the production, and/or reviving it, none of which is logistically viable. So we the actors, the management, and our audiences will just have to let it go on our last night Sunday 31st of Jan, about the time I post this – the ephemeral nature of live theatre.

At one of our talk-backs – a strange event which has become more prevalent in recent years – where as many of the audience who are interested, stay on after the performance to ask questions of the actors and offer their own comments. I say strange, because my feeling as an actor is, I’ve just told you everything I know about this play – as well as which, do you really want to deconstruct something as elusive as a performance? Having said all that, the talk-backs held here have been notably intelligent – at one of them an unusually young man (in his 20s – unusually young for this theatre in particular, but for theatres everywhere), asked if we ever got bored repeating the roles.

I gave the theatrically correct answer which is ‘No, because the play is endlessly fascinating, there’s always more to discover, every audience it different… blah, blah, blah’. All of which is true by the way, and I could have gone on to say, that none of us has such perfect technique that we can be sure of delivering the moments as planned in rehearsal every time, so that there is always something to improve, and repetiton is the mother of skill. All of which is also true.

But another truth(which I didn’t say) is yes, sometimes. When between a quarter and a half of the audience is actually sleeping, or when several people in the front row yawn loudly, or when someone checks her nails at a particularly delicate moment, or when a married couple carry on an audible commentary, or when a cell phone goes off, or when after two and a half hours of intense concentration and effort to communicate things not easily communicated, several audience members head as quickly as their age allows, for the exit, not even waiting for the lights to go down on the final lines… Real quality in live theatre is a rarity. There is a scale between the deadly quite good and the acceptable very good, and most shows except the out and out turkeys fall somewhere along it.

I’ve always, mistakenly maybe, regarded being an actor as a vocational calling. And I am profoundly grateful that I was lucky enough to be a professional for, so far, about 30 years. The experience of the job has changed so much over the years. The consuming ambition – which I now regard as a necessary affliction of youth – is all gone. But the silence where people hold their breath because something on the stage has illumined some detail of life in a way that could not have happened elsewhere, where people lean forward in interest and appreciation of the work they see unfolding before them, and in compliment the actors are in the zone, performing at their best level of skill within their limits, that moment, those moments, that is the gold, that’s why we do it, why we joined.

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