Stage Struck

Why believing isn’t always seeing


‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality,”
goes a line in a TS Eliot poem. It helps to explain the appeal of art, which transforms even the recognisable into something appealingly strange. We praise a combination of brushstrokes or carefully chiselled marble for being “lifelike”, a book’s characters for being “believable”, or a painstakingly crafted piece of theatre for containing “truth”. We may want to escape into fantasy, but we like to be persuaded.

One way of getting us there is literalism. As Laurence Olivier said to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man , after the younger actor went for three days without sleep to be convincing: “Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?” True or not, the story epitomises the distrust of a stage ham for a film method man. They’re both acting, but theatre likes to arouse real feeling through artificial methods: part swindle, part magic.

But tell that to the person charged with sourcing real apple, ash and oak trees in the Abbey’s new production of Drum Belly , a crime drama set in July 1969. The play’s attention to detail is startling, requiring police uniforms that bear insignias specific to Brooklyn districts of the era; trees in summer foliage not currently in season; and 45 tonnes of cement to make a warehouse floor. What would Olivier make of that? “Have you ever tried pasteboard, dear boys?”

Such feats are solidly impressive, if not exactly transportative, and an audience accustomed to airtight design tends to scrutinise the details. If that Brooklyn insignia was out by 10 years, say, someone would complain. Is it pedantry or the sign that however much reality we can bear, we just can’t get enough realism?

At the other extreme is Man of Valour, the Corn Exchange’s phenomenal one-person show which is soon to tour the country. A pump-action riff on the Walter Mitty fantasy, it sees Paul Reid make a universe out of nothing, creating a cast of hundreds and a blockbuster’s worth of special effects with just his body.

These are two wholly different styles for very different shows. New York gangsters aren’t known for their command of mime and, despite his talents, I’m not sure Reid would know what to do with even half that much cement. But while rigorously detailed stagecraft seeks to impress, the roughly summoned details of an imagined world seek to involve.

It seems telling that current shows are having it both ways. Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Gate has all the exquisite hemlines of a costume drama but a pointedly artificial set. The actors in TheatreUpstairs’ Small Box Psychosis lean hard on their shaky American accents and plausible props, but their elevator set can be as abstract as you like. And the friends in axis:Ballymun’s Waiting for Elvis occupy a space so vaguely suggested it makes us see the world through their shared illusion.

The looser reality seems, the more we enter into it. Sometimes that’s as real as it gets.