A few years ago I attended the dress rehearsal of a production of The King and I at the Royal Albert Hall in London. For the most part, it was pleasant, although not being a regular musical theatre goer, I found the echoey effect of the miking on the voices to be distracting. Something else bothered me the whole time, and I couldn’t quite figure it out until late in the performance.
I read somewhere that 3 million pounds ($6 million USD at the time) had gone into the production. Aside from the stars of television and the West End stage who played the King and Anna, and the designers and director, who I know are all paid lavishly compared to performers, I assume the actors, musicians, and techs weren’t paid more than equity wage. It seemed a great portion of the expense went into the set and occasional special effects, which included real fireworks, flaming and fizzing against the vaulted ceiling. To fill the vast Hall (whose rent alone must be staggering) the in-the-round set comprised a convincingly dingy dock and suitably ornate, huge gilt chunks of palace espaliered with silk draping, but the star of the show—the thing most chatted about in the buzzy run-up to opening, was the submerged stage. The entire set perched on beams arising out of real-life, actually-wet, splashable H2O. I couldn’t tell why I resented this, I felt, solecistic bit of reality glistening in the house of make-believe. As soon as I entered the theatre, or arena, more like, before I could swoon over the spectacularity of it all, I had to wonder to myself, “How much must it cost to safely flood the Albert Hall?” But there was something else, unrelated to the display of extravagance which, as an echt poverty thespian I had been taught to disdain, that gnawed at me. It wasn’t even that throughout the whole performance that water was never actually used for anything—not a single pointy Thai model boat made its way through the model canals—thus emphasizing that it was basically a very costly bit of scenery intended to make us go “ooh” and not much else.
No, at one point, Princess Tuptim sat on the dock waiting for her lover, feet over the edge. Her feet didn’t quite reach the water, but she simulated tapping its surface with her toe, in that way that girls do while sitting on docks waiting for their lovers. I realized then why I disliked the set. That actress, tapping the surface of an imaginary pool of water with her toe, was all we needed to know that water was indeed there, to see her watching her reflection corrugate along its ripples, even to hear it lapping. Most theatres have to rely on that alone—the talent of the actor, that is–to make the fake paint-and-plywood world come alive. And part of the thrill of theatre is witnessing that, of recognizing an entire atmosphere from a wave of a hand, or tap of the toe. And in filling the stage with water, making it all so literal, the designers did our imaginative work for us, and robbed us of the thrill of recognition. I emphasize “recognition” because I think that that, as much as any of the beautiful language, music, or profound themes to be found in drama, is what moves us when we see a piece of theatre. What would War Horse have been with real horses? A very nice play about a boy who loves his horse so goshdarn much, through which we’d all have sat waiting for the inevitable equine hard-on or dropped turd. But with the virtuosic level of fakery of the actors manipulating their skeletal puppets to appear to walk, swing their manes, even breathe like horses, we were able to experience the thrill of recognition. That exact way a colt stumbles a bit while trying to stand on its knobby legs, or that special horsey way that horses sneeze, or that bewildered struggle of a horse not made for weight-bearing, dragging a load uphill, all hoofs and ankles digging into the soil—however beautiful it may be in nature, the artful representation reverberates differently in our souls, points our memory to some platonic form of horseyness (er, Equus?) that the “real thing” allows us to ignore. It may be because I’m not particularly an animal-lover, but I found that bit of fakery more affecting than, well, any actual horse has ever been for me. And judging by the wet faces surrounding me at the National that night, I think other people felt the same.
But back to Siam: fittingly, in the same performance, the famous subversive ballet reinforced my point. Without getting into the story too much, I’ll say it ended with the dancers simulating a mass drowning by unfurling a huge swathe of blue silk over their heads to totally cover them, and at the climax, thrusting their hands through hidden holes in the silk, an instantly-recognizable symbol. It didn’t take money or complicated engineering to create, just cleverness and imagination (not to diminute the cleverness and imagination that goes into engineering, but considering how many great shows have been put on in crumbling, sub-code earthquake deathtraps, it is perhaps not the “stuff” of great theatre, unless you’re seeing a show here). The audible, and audibly delighted, gasp in the auditorium at that moment, was, I think, a greater triumph than all of the hype about the flooded stage.
And finally, for all the extravagance of the production, the most affecting moment, and one that incited the audience of thousands to clap along, was “Shall We Dance?”—the exuberant polka that prim Anna teaches the King to dance to. Three million pounds spent on a production and the thing that gets people out of their seats is watching a couple of laughing, panting middle-aged actors gallop around the stage. It was a beautiful, joyful moment, and one in which the only sign that more money than normal was spent was her INSANE DRESS, to which photos do no justice. It was also a moment that did not invite unfavorable comparisons to Yul Brynner (except inasmuch as any comparison to His Bald Majesty in any context must be unfavorable). There’s a famously sexy moment from the movie in which the king insists on dancing as the Europeans do, “not holding two hands”—when Brynner, a masterful physical actor, extends his hand as if it were something else, and fuses it to the corseted waist of the appropriately half-beswooned Deborah Kerr. Daniel Dae Kim seemed to grab Anna’s waist out of pure enthusiasm for the dance itself and his surprise at the suddenly intimate contact, and at Maria Friedman’s visible frisson, made them both for a moment seem like teenagers, and like equals. It had a freshness that can only come from two people standing on a stage, any stage, and allowing themselves to experience something real.
I saw a performance about a year ago at NYU’s summer lab, a workshop for students and alumni of the graduate theatre programs. Everything was as minimal as could be but the talent. It was basically a beautifully written play, acted brilliantly, some of which was due to the talent and skill of the actors and some of course to the director guiding them to make each scene and its place in the story, clear. That was all. Everything else either didn’t exist or had substitutions that were chosen without any attempt at convincing replication at all. Whiskey glasses were jam jars filled with water. Shovels and shoveling were mimed. Bones and skulls were planks of wood and balls of rubber bands. Murders happened with no rupturing of cleverly concealed packets of fake blood. Sound effects were narrated by the stagehand. There was no set, just a stage painted black and a table. It was one of the best, most moving plays I’ve ever seen, and a premier example of how poverty theatre, done well in the aspects that matter (writing, directing, acting), makes a fool of spectacular theatre. I dare any proponent of the hogwash idea that great theatre requires expenditure of fortunes–and that people go to the theatre for the razzle-dazzle, or that cynical, intellectually and creatively lazy cliché, “to escape”—to see something like that and suggest it would have been a more moving experience for the audience if the actors had used real-looking bones and real shovels and real dirt and real fake blood and monstrous set pieces and marvels of engineering and Spielburgian special effects. People who see theatre like this show I saw in the grungy pit at NYU go to the theatre regularly, because it gives them something more substantial than razzle-dazzle (and doesn’t cost $125 a ticket. I’m talking to you, Broadway). People who go to the theatre for spectacle go once a year, because that’s all they need to get their fix of what essentially can only nourish a part of them that doesn’t ask for much beyond the cheap thrill of expensive pageantry. People go to the theatre to be moved in one way or another, and if the only way you are able to move them is with grandiose money-flinging and a literal-minded slavery to realism, you are doing something wrong, and should not be surprised that most people would rather stay at home and watch television.
Unfortunately the production at the Royal Albert Hall was not videorecorded; I would love to include a clip of my favorite moment, although perhaps some of the magic of the live performance would be lost in conversion. So I’m including a clip from the movie. Swoon.