Thomas Sutcliffe: Gate theatrics too close for comfort

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The Independent Online

The physical presence of the actors has always been one of theatre's trump cards over film and television. The latter forms might boast greater liberties of setting and narrative style - but, in the end, theatre always has proximity up its sleeve, the suggestion that you might find yourself within the immediate sphere of influence of a great performer.

And you could hardly get closer than you can at the Gate Theatre in London right now, a pub theatre venue which almost always presses audience and actors into an unusual degree of intimacy (the auditorium is just a little larger than a single car carriage). This closeness is taken even further with its production of The Emperor Jones - Eugene O'Neill's odd expressionist drama about the downfall of a tin-god African despot. Richard Hudson's design for the play sets all the action in a sunken sandpit - around which the audience sit in a single line of seats. As a result the actors are never much more than 10 feet away - and quite often within inches.

One result of this is a kind of theatrical amplification. Paterson Joseph has rightly received glowing reviews for his performance as Jones - at first, cocky and swaggering, but soon dissolving into gibbering, superstitious terror as his subjects rebel and he is then forced to flee through a forest haunted by his own fears and memories. But it can't have hurt his critical reception that his "in your face" interpretation of the role is often unmetaphorically in your face.

The other result of this proximity is what I can only describe as a kind of theatrical embarrassment. It could be that this is just me. I've always disliked those theatrical productions which think it interesting to break the fourth wall and mingle actors in with the audience.

I remember, in particular, an excruciating couple of minutes trying to dissuade an actor in the RSC's celebrated adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby from "selling" me a muffin - all part of a pre-performance pantomime in which the cast roamed the auditorium fraternising with the punters. He didn't want to exchange badinage with me and I certainly didn't want to bat banter back at him but, thanks to a directorial conceit of John Caird's or Trevor Nunn's (I'm not sure which) we were obliged to go through the motions to construct a factitious sense of togetherness.

And while Thea Sharrock's production never tries anything equally gauche, the mere physical circumstances of the theatre mean that awkwardness sometimes arises. I chose a seat, for example, that put me within inches of Paterson Joseph's opening speech, which was delivered from just behind my left ear.

This presented a nice question of etiquette. Did I pretend he wasn't there and stare rigidly forwards, or did I swivel and watch, in which case I would have had an unimpeded view up both his nostrils? I chose the former - on the grounds that it might not help his concentration to have my face suddenly loom out of the darkness beneath him. But perhaps the back of my head - apparently indifferent, but actually horribly attentive to every vibration and pulse of breath - was even worse?

The fact that, rather literally, I didn't know where to look got me thinking about this kind of bashfulness in the theatre - and the subject returned when I visited the new Unicorn Theatre last weekend to see their opening production, Tom's Midnight Garden. My children insisted on sitting in the front row - which was fine but again took me outside my own comfort zone - which generally requires a protective barrier of at least four rows. The problem with getting closer, I realised, is intimacy - often a theoretical goal in a dramatic performance - but one that isn't always furthered by nose-to-nose scrutiny.

This is partly a matter of the forgiving veil that distance adds to any kind of theatrical illusion. If you can see that an actor's wig has started to peel away from a sweaty forehead it can become almost impossible to concentrate on what they're saying. But it's also because getting inside the personal space of an actor requires you take what they do personally. You're no longer an invisible member of the audience but an individual. You see every bead of sweat and facial twitch - and it becomes almost impossible to ignore the fact that a professional pretender and a fictional chimaera are temporarily inhabiting the same skin. Is that a feeling, you wonder, as the actor contorts his or her face, or just a calculation?

A very powerful performance can sometimes blast that self-consciousness away again. But in, general, if you want an actor to really touch you, I suggest that you stay well out of reach.

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