THEATRE / The Art of Theatre: 22 Surprise and suspense: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

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RUPERT pauses. Goes to chest. GRANILLO is still prostrate. RUPERT examines lock, and tries to lift lid.

RUPERT: It's locked - padlocked. (He sits easily on edge of chest.)

BRANDON: What of it?

RUPERT: Where's the key?

BRANDON: I don't know. Why should I know? lt's upstairs, I think.

RUPERT: Upstairs?

BRANDON: Yes. Shall I go and get it?

RUPERT: (rising) No. Don't do that. (Goes over to sideboard and picks up silver nutcrackers.) I can force it. (Comes down again, looking at others.) Must I do this?

ROPE by Patrick Hamilton, Act Three

ROBERT: Incredible day. I got up very early and - whoomp - right across the lagoon to Torcello. Not a soul stirring.

JERRY: What's the 'whoomp'?

ROBERT: Speedboat

JERRY: Ah I thought -

ROBERT: What?

JERRY: It's so long ago, I'm obviously wrong. I thought one went to Torcello by gondola.

ROBERT: It would take hours. No no, - whoomp - across the lagoon in the dawn.

JERRY: Sounds good

ROBERT: I was quite alone.

JERRY: Where was Emma?

ROBERT: I think asleep.

BETRAYAL by Harold Pinter, Scene 7

THE most useful book on playwriting that I've ever come across is a book on film: Hitchcock by Truffaut. Page 91 has the maestro explaining the difference between surprise and suspense by means of an imagined scene. Two men (he suggests) are chatting over a table. Under the table - unknown to the audience - is a bomb. After 15 minutes of innocuous conversation, the bomb goes off.

That's one way to do it. The other way is for the audience to know there's a bomb. They might even have seen the anarchist put it in place. They know the explosion is timed for one o'clock. There's a clock in the wall: they see the minutes pass. The conversation - so pointless in the earlier version - is suddenly fascinating. The audience longs to warn the characters: stop wittering on] Look under the table] Finally . . .

Version One - Hitchcock now points out - gives you 15 seconds of surprise. Version Two - the one which lets the audience in on the secret - gives you 15 minutes of suspense. Nearly always, this is the one to go for.

In Rope, we know that inside the chest is the body of a young man whom Brandon and Granillo - Nietzschean experimentalists that they are - have murdered. We've seen them throw a dinner party at which the same chest served as table. Their victims' father, a decent sort, was one of the guests; his mother, too ill to attend, contributed an anxious telephone call: where's Ronald? He was expected home hours ago: what's happened, etc.?

It's superior hokum: 'look-at-me' suspense, fuelled with many a teaser of the 'Gosh, I wonder what's in this chest?' variety. Sooner or later somebody's going to pull up the lid and discover a scrunched-up corpse: the excerpt shows our anticipation being painfully spun out via a padlock, a lame excuse and a pair of nutcrackers.

Yet what - really - are we feeling suspenseful about? The sight of the body? Hardly. The effect on poor old dad and mum? Yes, a bit - but we're not half as worried about this deserving couple as we are about the murderers. Suspense doesn't require us to approve of characters, or even to like them. All that's needed, for our own queasy anxieties to stir in response, is that we identify. And which of us - faced with a guilty secret - can avoid doing that?

About Betrayal. It's a great curiosity of plays that the impact of an event bears no relation to its size. Hedda Gabler burns a writer's lifetime's work and puts a bullet through her head - but none of this is remotely as distressing as the moment when she pretends to mistake Aunt Julia's new hat for the parlour-maid's. And nothing in Three Sisters - not even the violent death of the nicest man in the play - upsets us like the scene where Natasha yells at an elderly servant. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the minutiae of emotion can make us far more anxious than bombs or bodies.

The Betrayal excerpt shows two old friends in a restaurant having the sort of innocuous conversation Hitchcock must have had in mind. Robert and his wife Emma have been to Venice. We know that Jerry - unknown, he thinks, to Robert - is Emma's lover. We know that, in the course of the holiday, Robert found out: that's why he went to Torcello alone. But will he tell Jerry? The bomb beneath the table is the truth. The suspense is chilling.

Next week: DRINK

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