Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Staging the Unstageable

In 2016, a series of posters went up all over the city of Glasgow. The posters appeared to be advertising upcoming performances. They included Kieran Hurley’s Black Friday, a massive re-enactment of Glasgow’s biggest riot in the aftermath of WWI when 60,000 workers took to George Square to demand higher wages.

There was Deborah Pearson’s show, which turns a field into a boating lake, and a fully immersive piece performed in one of Glasgow’s swimming baths, featuring acrobats, synchronised swimmers and a large band. Audiences were invited to watch either from the edge or the pool itself.

These performances were part of a festival of imaginary performances conceived as part of Take Me Somewhere, a festival created to help plug the gap following the closure of The Arches, a Glasgow venue that had been so crucial in the development of the city’s reputation as a place of artistic possibilities. The festival of imaginary performances anticipated what might come to pass if artists’ imaginations were unfettered and resources unlimited. They were about staging the unstageable.

As Andy Field, one of the instigators of the project wrote, the ‘imaginary festival’ operated in the space between “each of these artists’ imaginations and your own. That intangible, unmeasurable, unpoliceable space in which the ideas in their heads become the ideas in your heads.”

Over 400 years ago, in Henry V, Shakespeare recognised the power of that space when the Chorus implores the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” In the case of Henry V, for the play to work the audience must believe that the scenes they are watching are taking place on the battlefields of France, not on the wooden O of an Elizabethan theatre. It is as much an expansion of belief as it is a suspension of disbelief.

Both Glasgow’s ‘imaginary festival’ and Henry V refuse any limits to theatre, and modern theatre practice is increasingly embracing the impossible and unstageable with relish. In 2012, at Berlin’s Volksbühne, director Herbert Fritsch staged Fluxus artist Dieter Roth’s 1974 Murmel Murmel, a piece which runs to 176 pages and consists of a single repeated word: murmel, the German verb ‘to murmur’. The result, a piece of Dada-inspired slapstick with more than a nod to Monty Python, has since toured the world to great acclaim. Roth’s apparently unstageable play is an international hit.

Plenty of plays have been dubbed unstageable from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – with its trolls and shipwrecks – to Chekhov’s first play Platonov. Like Murmel Murmel, most eventually find their way to the stage in some form, whether that is Michael Frayn’s version of Platonov called Wild Honey or Dead Centre’s meta-theatrical deconstruction in Chekhov’s First Play, which makes meaning from the shattered fragments.

To some degree, every play is an unstageable proposition. There is something faintly absurd about believing that an audience in London or New York are going to be persuaded that they are in the trenches of WWI (War Horse) or the African Plains (The Lion King) instead of a building in a metropolitan city. Yet the opposite is also true because when an audience brings their own imaginations to the enterprise, they are willing and capable of believing anything.

Theatre director Sally Cookson, in an interview in the Independent about her staging of Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls at the Old Vic in 2018, said, “I don’t think anything is impossible to put on stage.” In Cookson’s case, she solved the problem of a demonic ancient yew tree coming to life with very low-tech coils of rope. And, of course, a great deal of audience imagination.

When Peter Shaffer wrote the infamous stage direction “they cross the Andes” in his 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, it was thought to set a bar for stage directions that were impossible to realise. But director John Dexter and designer Michael Annals solved the problem, just as directors and designers have to solve the problems arising from Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice which features a raining elevator, a room constructed out of string, and the devil riding a tricycle. The difficulty of staging the play may present challenges, but they are challenges which embolden artists and make them try to achieve the impossible.

Design offers numerous solutions in staging the unstageable, from the digital projections of 59 Productions’ interpretation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass in 2017 to the puppetry of The Lion King which brings an elephant graveyard and wildebeest stampede to life every night in theatres across the world. The Victorians were no less enthralled by spectacle. William W. Young’s 1899 New York version of Ben-Hur featured live horses and real chariots, the latter on treadmills. Mind you, Battersea Arts Centre successfully staged a version of Ben-Hur in 2002 with little more than a few chairs and some audience participation.

It’s up to playwrights to imagine their play; it is not their job to solve the difficulties that their imagination presents to those who want to stage them. Sarah Kane’s Cleansed requires both lopped off limbs and tongues as well as fields of daffodils – requirements that both James MacDonald, in the original 1998 Royal Court production and Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre in 2016 solved. But in very different ways: Macdonald’s violence was surreal whereas Mitchell’s choices about representing the violence felt forensically real.

In an interview in the Guardian in 1998, Kane was quizzed about the plague of rats in Cleansed and replied: “I don’t know what James (her director) will do about them. I have to say, I’m glad it’s not my problem”. Then, almost dreamily, she adds:

There’s a Jacobean play with a stage direction, ‘Her spirit rises out of her body and walks away, leaving her body behind’. Anyway, Shakespeare has a bear running across the stage in A Winter’s Tale and his stagecraft was perfect, so I don’t know why I can’t have rats.

If Glasgow’s list of imaginary shows seems improbable or Kane’s Cleansed a challenge, they are no more unlikely than putting the Battle of Borodino on stage. But Shared Experience did exactly that in their staging of War and Peace (2006, revived in 2011) in which the bloody Russian-French conflict was depicted by a cast waving cutlery.

Who would have thought that you could put 1,500 pages of Tolstoy on stage? Or all 49,000 words – complete with every he said and she said – of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as Elevator Repair Service did in 2010? With both these shows, the companies took a private internalised experience and made it into a shared public one.

Possibly the only limits left for theatre are the self-censorship that sometimes constrains theatre-makers’ imaginations. Lack of resources and money mean few would propose a play that requires a cast of hundreds and a supporting flock of seagulls.

In fact, in some ways the challenge facing contemporary playwrights and theatre-makers is not what is unstageable (answer: probably nothing) but what cannot be represented and how that changes over time as theatre moves further and further away from realism. After all, when Lew Wallace was asked about adapting his 1880 novel Ben-Hur for theatre, it was not how the chariot race could be staged that primarily made him think it unstageable but rather that he considered it impossible for any actor to portray Jesus Christ.

We’ve previously talked about how plays which are less palatable to modern tastes such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice need to be reinvented afresh, but some commentators still worry about modern attempts to re-imagine classic works. In The Stage recently, producer Richard Jordan asked whether in the light of #MeToo debates: “Have we got to the point where some theatre classics are unstageable, or at least only stageable with significant editing?”

I reckon that he is worrying unnecessarily. After all, despite Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, numerous playwrights and late 20th-century and early 21st-century theatre-makers from Sarah Kane to Romeo Castellucci – with his sometimes harrowing productions such as Tragedia Endogonidia and Purgatorio – have produced works that may appear unstageable but which have made theatre-goers contemplate the unimaginable, from the war in Bosnia to the Holocaust.