With the first week in September on us Gallery Tours at the local Institute of Fine Arts, where I am a volunteer, have started up again. I had two groups round this week and with one of them got into a discussion about the different ways in which we respond to paintings and how we talk about them. As some of you know, I am no art historian. The gallery invited me to act as a guide for my ability to place the art works in their historical and cultural contexts rather than for any knowledge of the techniques used to produce the paintings. Some of my fellow guides, however, are painters in their own right. If you go on a tour with them you will get an entirely different take on the works in the collection and for that reason I often advise visitors to come on several of our free tours, rather than thinking they know about the gallery after just one visit. Varying their guides will mean a completely different experience each time they come.
Of course, this isn’t just true when it comes to painting. Our responses to any work of art, whether that be fine art, music, literature or the theatre, will depend to a large extent on our previous experiences in the medium. This was brought home forcefully to me last weekend, when a friend and I went to see the RSC’s current production of Titus Andronicus. If you don’t know the play you’ve probably heard about it because whenever there is a new staging the papers are always full of the number of people who have fainted clean away and had to be carried out of the theatre. It isn’t just that people are killed on stage; it’s more to do with the up close and personal mutilations and the serving up of her sons as a dish fit for an Empress.
I must have seen at least half a dozen different productions of the play over the years and I have to say that I have never yet seen anyone faint. Certainly no one had to be carried out last Saturday, but one woman left of her own accord and there was a lot of empathetic oohing and aahing going on around me. And through it all, I sat unmoved. Well, perhaps not completely unmoved, but certainly not horrified in any way, because many decades ago I spent three years as a drama student and then went on to teach theatre studies to undergrads for five or six years and, as a consequence, I look at what is going on onstage with very different eyes. When everyone else is turning the other way, I am sat there thinking something along the lines of, “That was interesting. I wonder how they did that?” Or as at one point last week, “That was a mistake. They should have left that in the rehearsal room.” And at another, “That was risky. I’m surprised they got it past health and safety.” Let me say straight away that this lack of emotional engagement on my part wasn’t anything to do with the merits of the production. It was excellent, one of the best I’ve seen. But it simply isn’t possible for me to sit through a theatre performance without my analytical brain clocking in.
My past experiences mean that dissecting the hows and the wherefores of what is in front of me on stage is what I do. I had a quick count last night and after over five decades of theatre going I can reckon on the fingers of two hands the number of times I have been so caught up in the emotional intensity of a performance that the analytic part of my mind has closed down and I have been swept away into the world of the play. I haven’t worked out the percentage, but as I go to the theatre at least twenty times a year it clearly doesn’t happen very often.
Of course, what happens when I admit this is that people assume I don’t get any enjoyment out of the experience. Far from it. I’d hardly keep going if that was the case. I get immense pleasure out of appreciating the skill that has gone into crafting a production. Possibly even more when I can think, “oops, should of got rid of that bit of business by now, shouldn’t you?” And on the odd occasion – about once every five years – when I am blown away, I may well be blown further than your average theatregoer.
P.S. You might like to know that the last time I got completely caught up in a production was the RSC’s most recent staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost when I had to be prevented from rushing on stage to rescue a teddy bear who was being cruelly, cruelly mistreated. I very nearly withdrew my company patronage and I’m not sure I’ve got over the trauma even now.