Tom Sutcliffe: The spirit moves a confirmed sceptic

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Conor McPherson wrote an interesting piece a while ago about his play The Veil, which has just opened at the National Theatre. His subject was the peculiar aptness of the theatre as a place to explore supernatural (or counter-rational) stories and he began with a reference to Coleridge's famous phrase "the suspension of disbelief", pointing out that where quite a lot of writers might have used a singular positive Coleridge had opted for a kind of double negative. What he's talking about isn't the presence of belief, but the absence of its antithesis. There is far more to it than that, of course, because suspension itself is a word with helpful ambiguities. Coleridge's choice of words suggests that disbelief hasn't been locked out of the room altogether, so that it isn't an issue anymore. It's still there, poised and dangling above our heads. At any moment (temporariness is inherent in the word) it could come crashing down – and indeed most contemporary employments of the phrase are concerned with failures of suspension, the moments at which the wires snap and there's a jolting clatter of incredulity.

But there's another ambiguity too, less integral to the word. Who's doing the suspending? Is it us or – in the terms Coleridge was using when he wrote the phrase – the poet? Who exactly hauls on the pulley to get the whole thing in the air? Contemporary usage again would tend to suggest that this is the business of the writer. At least that's who generally gets the blame when disbelief never gets off the ground. Look at carping blogposts and internet raging and there's a clear implication that if there's any hoisting to be done, it's the author's job. But we must be involved surely, since it's our disbelief that ends up swinging there. And Coleridge precedes the words that always get quoted with one that doesn't very often. He writes of "that willing suspension of disbelief". As the OED describes it, it's a "voluntary withholding of skepticism on the part of the reader". In practice, I think this is a collaboration, a compact between writer and reader (or audience), which only holds if both sides act in good faith.

Watching McPherson's play though I was struck by the fact that nothing so laborious is necessary, particularly when the subject matter concerns the spectral or supernatural. McPherson has always been interested in ghosts – literal and metaphorical – and The Veil confirms that interest with a drama about a spirit-beset Irish house and varieties of belief and dread among its occupants. And at one point an informal seance is held. I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that something occurs, that it does so suddenly and that when it does 90 per cent of the people in the theatre achieve a momentary suspension, about two inches above their seats. I jumped myself, which doesn't mean that I believe in ghosts and certainly doesn't mean that anything voluntary had occurred. McPherson had simply contrived his scene in such a way that I had no choice. He'd gone above my head, if I can put it this way, to a lower authority – the ancient instincts of threat and alarm.

It may be that I'm just a bit of a wimp in these circumstances. A few days earlier, at the cinema, I encountered a trailer for some forthcoming horror movie that so effectively suspended my disbelief for me that I can't actually tell you what the film was. I was looking at my shoes when they showed the title, waiting for the damn thing to be over. Such will as I still possess at such moments is entirely bent on not being so foolish, and allowing my disbelief to assert itself. But it rarely works. And I don't think I'm alone in combining a robust daylight skepticism with a susceptibility to hindbrain panic when the conditions are right. I certainly wasn't at the National the other night. There was an element of will there I suppose. We knew it was safe to be scared, and so we weren't as inclined to question what was scaring us. But "suspension" still doesn't seem the right word for the undignified trampoline bounce with which a good scary moment will hurl your disbelief into the air.

Why it's best to have no truck with trailers

Talking of trailers, Kevin Smith recently called the people who make them "lying whores", and after seeing his latest I'm inclined to agree with him. Red State, although it had its intriguing moments, didn't entirely live up to the pre-boudoir fan-dance that persuaded me to put my money down. "Never trust a trailer" really is the only reliable guideline. The trouble is that sometimes the whores are just so damn skilful that the blood rushes to your head and you completely forget you're being lied to. David Fincher's forthcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has at least one trailer in which the voiceover is delivered in that clichéd, sub-woofer growl and the entire pitch is concerned with whipping you into contributing to the "phenomena" of the books and films. Since I've never really understood how anyone could finish one Stieg Larsson book, never mind come back for more, it did nothing but stimulate the "avoid" reflex. And then I saw a trailer for the same film cut to Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover version of "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin and I was multiplex toast. It has about 160 cuts in just a minute and a half, an interrupted tracking shot that puts the hair up on the back of my neck every time I watch it, and ends with the irresistible come on "The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas". And now, of course, I feel like an absolute pimp for going on about it. But if the movie itself is even half as good I won't feel cheated.

Stalls fright on the first night

There was a call for a prompt at a first night I attended recently. I'll spare the blushes of the actor, because whether you're an actor or a civilian this is a circumstance that every one of us can empathise with – and he handled the derailment pretty well. I'm always astounded that they don't burst into tears and run into the wings on such occasions, given that it is the enactment of a universal nightmare. Anyway, he was back in the saddle within seconds and after about a minute all of us in the audience felt reasonably confident that he wasn't going to fall off again and could start to unclench before we got muscle cramp. What was surprising was the position of the prompter – smack in the middle of the auditorium – and the level at which he delivered his cue, which was stentorian. What happened to the notion that such moments should be as discreet as possible? I've never seen a stage with a prompt-box on it (a little covered aperture through which prompters could stick their heads) but they used to be a standard feature in theatre cartoons. If we've moved on from that technology, surely there are better replacements available than a bloke yelling from the stalls. If actors can use invisible ear-pieces to do verbatim theatre, couldn't those who are not yet securely off the book use something similar so that it's only one person who risks cardiac arrest, not 800?



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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