Theatre Royal Stratford East
Private apartment in Stoke Newington
This was just one of 30 different plays being staged on the same night across London, not in theatres but in peoples’ homes and other private spaces, all of them commissioned by Theatre Royal Stratford East in a repeat of a project they began in 2013.
The whole idea started in Brazil where the Theatre Royal’s Artistic Director Kerry Michael, on a visit to share his experience of having the 2012 Olympic Games in Stratford with people preparing for hosting them in Rio, met director Marcus Faustini who was taking actors to perform in the favelas.
Their meeting led to the Home Theatre concept and what is now the Festival Internacional de Cenas em Casa which stages performances in Rio in homes in both the favelas and posh places while the Theatre Royal mounts them in London. This year they were also being staged simultaneously in 12 homes in Erdington by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and last month by the South African State Theatre, presented in 20 homes in Tswane, Pretoria.
The 30 hosts selected (from many more volunteers) invite both friends and strangers to join them for the evening and to provide hospitality with some refreshment after the performance to enable discussion of the play and the experience. A week before the show, the performers meet up with the hosts to see the venue and talk to the host with the intention of basing their performance on what they learn about them and their wishes. They then have one week to create a new work. Six directors work with them between the 30 performers.
I did not know the host in whose elegant apartment the show I saw was staged but was warmly welcomed and richly entertained. Each performer creates an original work, based on their meeting and the space they perform but Ann Akin’s presentation was different from my expectations because when she interviewed our host he turned the conversation around to be more about her and not about him.
The result was a very personal monologue that became a chain of consciousness discussion of her own feelings following the breakdown of one romantic relationship and a new one that was developing. What began as direct address to her audience increasingly became a more interior interrogation of herself and her hang-ups.
It was beautifully written, sometimes poetic but very real and performed with frank naturalism. Was it truth or invention? Fact or fiction doesn’t matter but it felt truly personal and its sense of self-awareness and presentation of problems led later to two psychiatrists in the audience commending both its clarity and its accuracy.
Before her performance, Ann Akin sat by a grand piano with a person who was videoing the evening, not socialising with the guests but able to observe them. When the time came, everyone was settled on chairs and sofas on three sides of a large coffee table with a single chair on the fourth side reserved for the actress.
She began her performance with music, then moved to that chair, standing first in hesitant silence, then a physical sequence incorporating British sign language. She very briefly made direct contact, giving a hug to one of the audience but otherwise, though moving to different locations to match the shape of the content, there was no confrontation or direct involvement of the audience, no reference to anything around us.
For that reason this was not a work that was particularly site-specific; it could have been effectively been performed anywhere. Although self-exposing, it did not exploit the added intimacy of the occasion. However, it very much reflected what the host had hoped for.
Such frank revelation in a domestic setting I would have expected to produce a greater intimacy but this felt largely delivered to an anonymous audience. No eye contact with anyone, nor any point making deliberate avoidance, though the sincerity of the playing seemed faultless.
My reactions were inevitably subjective. I did not feel that on this occasion the venue really added to the performance. Slightly the opposite. I found myself registering books on the table, interesting art objects—I’m used to interpreting setting and props as part of intentional semiotic signing. In this case they were not part of the story nor used as conscious contrast.
But I am used to immersive theatre, one-on-one shows, in-the-round and close-up fringe theatre. The majority of plays that I see are not in proscenium theatres and this room was as large as some fringe theatres.
Had I seen a play in a cramped council flat perhaps I would have had a different reaction but for me revelation came in the discussion that followed, not in the few minutes of more formal comment as a group but in individual conversations. My fellow guests all seemed well-educated people, well-dressed too but, though they all seemed to be at least occasional theatregoers, their experience of theatre did seem restricted.
Though familiar with Broadway shows and Italian opera houses, sitting in the front row at an Old Vic in-the-round production had been a surprise to one couple, a young film academic volunteered she knew little about theatre. For all the fashionable appeal of Punchdrunk and Bum Bum Train, such things clearly aren't as widely know as you might think, nor fringe theatre a regular habit. I was surprised to hear the suggestion that the Young Vic's auditorium was copied from the Old Vic’s recent in-the-round format.
Happily, everyone really seemed to have enjoyed Ann’s performance and those I asked found the experience unusual. One of the aims of this project is to introduce more people to theatre who might not make it through the doors of a conventional playhouse. With this group, I think it may have worked the other way around and those who previously chose a show by its achievement in Tonys and Oliviers may become more adventurous.
All 30 London performances have been videoed and will be shown on the Stratford East web site next weekend (31 October to 1 November). Some of the 2013 shows can be found on YouTube and a whole-day seminar on Monday 20 October will be an opportunity for everyone to share their experience on Saturday and hear from others working internationally in the fields of community engagement, arts participation and audience development.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton