Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Centre stage

Last Friday I was in a play. Not entirely intentionally. As part of the summer Watch This Space festival, the National Theatre staged a performance of Domini Public by Roger Bernat. Via a pair of headphones which each audience member is given as they arrive, a series of questions are asked, the answers moving "the cast" around the stage like chess-pieces, as the game or play unfolds. Beginning in giggling awkwardness the action unfolds to encompass death, rape, a group of prisoners (those who answered yes to the question "Were you born in London?") escaping incarceration and finishes with a somewhat strange gathering in a tent - like confused wedding guests piling into a marquee to watch a nauseating tribute video.

The idea of those who come to watch theatre becoming part of it, echoes the inclusion of new city-dwellers into the urban theatrical productions London stages. Each district, each borough, each street is a new performance space. Travelling through you join new casts and tread different boards. From my huge kitchen windows I have box seats for the never-ending production of "Holloway All Hours". Numerous actors swap on and off stage in order to keep the action flowing all day and all night.
After four days (and unpopular late nights) of sanding and painting the flat-in-renovation act of the play appears to be over. Evident mostly by their off-stage sounds, its protagonists have appeared from time to time to smoke in paint-spattered clothes on balconies or wielding paint-rollers. Somewhere an invisible yet repetitive scene of a table-tennis game recurs, breaking silence between acts. Faces appear at windows, lost in thought, clutching mugs of tea or their cat. Lights flick on and off, illuminating activities in kitchens, bedrooms, sitting rooms. Many actors are so involved in their television-watching and tea-brewing they give no indication of being aware of their audience. Feline thespians cross multiple scene sets, occasionally displaying their fight training, scrapping centre-stage over a small, fluffy prop.

But as I watch the windows opposite I realise there is a second play unfolding in parallel - the one in which my windows form part of the scenery and stage. Once again I am an unwitting actor, as the cast I watch becomes my audience. To the late-night DIY enthusiasts I am the girl who's appeared late in the play, who walks around a lot but doesn't seem to have many props. To the phantom ping-pong players my radio and cooking sounds provide equivalent off-stage sound effects. Shakespeare was only too right when he wrote of all the world being a stage. In a city there are so many acts to be enjoyed, and someone is always watching.

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