Thomas Sutcliffe: Please mind the theatrical gap

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The Independent Online

Coming out of Katie Mitchell's new production of The Women of Troy last week, I found myself giving thanks for the fact that it had no interval. As it happens, I'm always grateful when the interval has been dispensed with, since it rarely strikes me as anything other than a pointless interruption. But in this case, the fact that the audience couldn't confer over its reactions before the whole evening had run its course seemed particularly important.

You wouldn't conventionally expect an interval in a Greek tragedy, of course, but such is the force of habit in the theatre (and the seductive leverage of bar profits) that it wouldn't be particularly surprising for a production to contain one. And in this case, I think it would have been fatal and not just because the play needs to be an unbroken slide into catastrophe. Any kind of interlude would have allowed the audience to rally itself against Mitchell's provocative modernisation. It would have given us a space to defuse our uncertainties about what was happening on stage into a jokey dismissal.

On the night I went, a large group of American students were in. For the first 30 minutes they giggled at the wilder extravagances of the staging, but by the end, the drama had turned them, and expelled them trembling. With an interval, no such reversal would have been possible.

Some critics succeeded in resisting The Women of Troy anyway, but the experience left me thinking how marvellous it would be if more plays were presented unviolated by an audience's need for cheap white wine and modern plumbing. There is, after all, no reason why Shakespeare's plays should have to submit to such crude dissection at all. "Shakespeare wrote for no intervals," says Peter Hall in his book Shakespeare's Advice to the Players, and although scholars are divided over the exact nature of Shakespearean act breaks, most are agreed that an interval in the modern sense would have been unheard of.

Some have suggested that the act breaks themselves only came about because of the need to replace candles when the company moved to its winter quarters at Blackfriars Theatre. Since then, convention has varied widely. In an interesting British Academy lecture on the subject of intervals (entitled Beginning in the Middle), Peter Holland quotes George Bernard Shaw complaining about the four or five intervals that were common in Henry Irving's Shakespeare productions. And it wasn't very long ago that two intervals were relatively common in Shakespeare plays, though the fashion has now shifted to a single break, with directors occasionally bravely doing away with an interval altogether.

The pause-button interval also seems to have become more common recently, with productions that either freeze the action mid-scene or replay the last few frames of a scene, as a way of implying that we have picked up where we left off, rather than slipped out through one of the drama's internal breaks of time or space.

There are practical and artistic reasons why the convention persists. Holland notes that an interval-less production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre was calculated to have cost the catering company 45,000 in lost revenue over the course of the run. And good directors have always known that judicious placing of the interval to release tension or artificially defer a crisis can radically change the impact of a production. Rupert Goold's recent production of Macbeth effectively split a doubled version of the banquet scene across the interval, played once from Macbeth's perspective and once from that of the appalled guests a coup that would have been impossible without a break.

But it's also the case that the interval has become such an established part of an evening's architecture that its necessity isn't really questioned. Why do theatre audiences need an interval when cinema audiences (increasingly sitting in the dark for just as long) are assumed to be able to cope without one? And isn't it possible that the interval isn't actually a sustaining device, extending the audience's stamina, but the very reason that stamina is so feeble in the first place? Knowing that an interval will come at some point to wrench us out of our immersion, we find ourselves half-wondering when it's going to arrive.

Theatre audiences have been tutored in distraction and escape in a way that today's cinema audiences haven't. And while there are some plays that would be distorted if they were performed without intervals, there are many more that are damaged by them. In the theatre and out of it, I can't wait for the interval to end.