Tuesday 6 August 2013

On coughing and anachronism

At the theatre earlier this year, for the press night of what would become a critically-acclaimed production of Chekhov's The Seagull.

The quantity and volume of violent coughing in the auditorium was extraordinary. After about twenty minutes, unable any longer to concentrate on the play, I started counting the seconds between the distracting expectorations and found that after a dozen attempts I couldn't get beyond ten. By then I'd lost track of what was happening on stage. 

These were not, you understand, surpressed throat clearings. The place sounded like a 1930s Tuberculosis Clinic, or croup research facility. Loud, hacking phlegmy coughs, not (from the sound of it) involving either hand or handkerchief.

There was something else about the production of this warmly-reviewed updating of Chekhov's The Seagull that impressed me. The script had its moments (thanks to Chekhov) but the updated elements seemed to me to be little more than an accumulation of distracting anomalies that, like the staccato eructations in the audience, slowly drove me round the bend and up the wall. Modern (if unconvincing) effing and blinding (mostly effing), a few bars of the Rolf Harris song 'Two Little Boys', unhelpful gobbets of contemporary slang - you know the sort of thing I mean. Yet such selective updatings were crassly at odds with a plot point that hinges on the availability of horses to convey characters to the railway station (or, annoyingly, 'train station').    

If the aim was to create a timelessness then the best one can say is that it was a brave failure. The anachronistic language did not strike me as something the writer was especially aware of or keen somehow to exploit by way of challenging audience expectations - he, or the director, simply wasn't aware f the problem or, if aware, couldn't be bothered. It wasn't  just the egregiously clunky phrases (the aforementioned 'train station' and 'bored of' and so on and on), not just the fact that all the actors were vocally indistinguishable (making identification, let alone sympathy, all the harder to achieve), not to say semi-visible in the darkest lighting set-up I've ever seen. 

It struck me that coughing is an unconscious form of criticism. I've sat through spellbinding productions in which there was not a peep from the audience and others in which the coughing and sneezing and rustling rendered the actors inaudible. It seems to me that the show reports (circulated after each performance to the director and creative team) should record not only glitches, malfunctioning lights and the length and intensity of audience applause but also any signs of public disaffection. A cough census, if you like.

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