It's shocking, but I'm still scared of stage fright

Movies have largely taken over the task of scaring us witless - it was a trick that theatre used to have - if we are to believe the stories of women miscarrying at the entrance of the Furies in Greek tragedy
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The Independent Online

What's really terrifying in the theatre these days? I know that a line of small print reading: "This production runs for four hours and 20 minutes, including an interval of 10 minutes," can chill my blood pretty effectively, but that's not the kind of dread the question is really addressing.

What's really terrifying in the theatre these days? I know that a line of small print reading: "This production runs for four hours and 20 minutes, including an interval of 10 minutes," can chill my blood pretty effectively, but that's not the kind of dread the question is really addressing.

I'm thinking, rather, about the kind of jolt of fright that announces itself with an adrenal all-points bulletin, and the question is prompted by the appearance of the ghost in John Caird's new production of Hamlet at the National Theatre. This is a traditional ghost, clammy with early decomposition. He appears, quite strikingly, through a narrow slit in the backdrop - but I doubt if his entrance made a single follicle stir on the back of a single neck. "Oh, here comes the ghost," you think, as blithely unperturbed as the American family in the Thurber story, who react to grisly spectral manifestations with infuriating matter-of-factness.

This is partly a problem of familiarity, it's true. Pretty much everyone knows when the ghost comes on and what he's going to do. But it also marks the degree to which the territory of the uncanny has now been colonised by the cinema.

Movies have largely taken over the task of scaring us witless - that is, into some instinctive region where the body starts worrying on its own behalf. It was a trick that theatre used to have - if we are to believe the stories of women miscarrying at the entrance of the Furies in Greek tragedy - but that it has largely lost to a medium better equipped to bypass reason and get at the body's unconscious levers of anxiety.

That doesn't mean that fright is impossible in the theatre; but it has to be arrived at by indirection if it is to work. Richard Eyre and Jonathan Pryce once pulled off the trick of making the ghost genuinely eerie by having its speeches emanate from the actor's own mouth, as if he was intermittently possessed by the spirit of his dead father. But what made that work was the audience's keen apprehension of the danger of the performance. Our fear that risibility - only one subversive giggle away - might actually break through offered a powerful substitute for an older dread, one that could be enlisted in the task of shifting us to the edge of our seats.

A recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth made a commendable stab at good old-fashioned frights with some special effects - including sudden apparitions through an apparently solid brick wall - but it couldn't exploit cinema's great trump card when it comes to making an audience feel threatened, the director's absolute command over what we can and cannot see. Tellingly, its most charged moment was an unnervingly extended period of absolute blackness at the opening of the play, a theatrical shot at cinema's ability selectively to blind us.

But if theatre has lost some ground to cinema in respect of fright, it has won some back elsewhere. If you need to think of a Shakespearean scene that can still exact a visceral, rather than intellectual tribute, one immediate candidate would be the blinding of Gloucester, a scene that has lost none of its power to appal and may actually have gained some.

Cinema can do human cruelty, too, of course, but it cannot quite match the theatre for the sense of bodily presence, the way in which an actor's squirming beneath the point transmits itself to all those bodies in the stalls. It isn't entirely surprising, then, that contemporary theatre should have become increasingly fascinated by hand-made atrocity, as opposed to supernatural forms.

If you want to be frightened in the theatre these days - it is living, breathing human beings that are going to do it to you, not visitors from the underworld.

* sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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