Dominic Cooke has after this evening had his name added to my list of creators of great theatrical mysteries. This is because he has discovered a definition of theatre in the round that I was not previously aware existed. If you buy a ticket in the Stalls for this production you will be warned that visibility for all seats is occasionally obscured. This is a thoroughly misleading piece of salesmanship, as is the selling of seats in rows AA-FF at the same price as rows A-J. I was seated in row EE in a seat in the £20 bracket for which I got to spend about 75% of the show staring at the backs of the actors – Indeed, it almost felt as if I saw more faces when the performers deigned to take a curtain call in our direction than in the previous two and a half hours. The scale of Cooke's near complete lack of understanding of what doing theatre in the round requires is demonstrated in the final scene. For the first time one of the main pieces of set, a large sofa, is placed so that anyone sitting in it would be directly facing the audience members in rows AA-FF. Nobody sits on that sofa for the whole scene.I frankly had the impression that the actors were scarecely aware that there was anybody sitting in our part of the auditorium, and one certainly comes to the conclusion that not a single member of the directorial team actually sat there during rehearsals. What makes this whole business the more baffling is that the play itself is actually a classic living room narrative (with an unconvincing flashback tacked on at the end). I cannot work out from the script why Cooke thought that playing it in the round would add anything.
The experience I have just described is sufficiently alienating (as may by now be apparent) that it is quite difficult to make a reasoned judgement about the play or indeed the performers. Whether through the failings of the staging or the performers I don't know, but I was largely unengaged by the plight of any of the characters. The payoff at the end didn't seem to make much sense of the earlier tensions and the dialogue largely failed to make me laugh, though there was a fair amount around me and elsewhere in the auditorium. I got especially irritated with the play during the first scene after the interval which turned into a discussion of why different characters voted for the Tories or Labour in recent elections. This struck me as a classic case of issues trumping character.
My experience this evening leaves me utterly baffled by the raves this show has received. As my neighbor and I agreed during the interval, we felt totally cut off from the performance. If you are considering this my strong advice would be avoid rows AA-FF in the Stalls like the plague, and if you have a ticket for that area get reseated for the reasons I have already outlined. It may well be a completely different evening from elsewhere in the house, from where I was it left me bored and increasingly irritated.
A Further Note
I received a very generous e-mail from the Sales Manager at the Royal Court this evening, offering me the opportunity to give the play a second chance by viewing it from the other side of the auditorium. Because of the day job, living outside of London and the near end of the run this is unlikely to be possible, but I would like to record that I was most impressed at the customer service of the Court in this regard (though obviously we differ about the nature of the view from Row EE) and that I am sorry that I almost certainly won't be able to take up the offer. The point made by my correspondent at the Court was that the view of the action is equally clear from either side of the auditorium - In case I wasn't quite clear in my review last night I should say that it was not that I could not see what was going on per se, but from my point of view I could see very few faces with the results already detailed. My correspondent also advises that other audience members have sat in those seats and have had no problem with the view - I would be most interested to hear what others experiences have been of the seating arrangements for this show, particularly if we have any readers who have sat in Rows AA-FF.