Tom Sutcliffe: Why less involved is more

The Week In Culture
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Is there any theatrical form in which the gap between theory and practice is as great as that in the promenade performance? The fact that there's a gap at all shouldn't count against it, I think. Very few evenings in the theatre don't feature some kind of breach between what you are expected to feel and what you actually do – even if on good nights it narrows to a hairline crack. And quite often it isn't the play's (or the production's) fault anyway. A line that was written to be heard attentively reaches you just as you've decided that you can't really bear to have your leg in that position any longer, and you miss it. Or a scene of great tragic intensity – an implicit plea for a cathartic welling of tears – finds you flat and unresponsive. This usually isn't a huge problem. We understand the deal ... and we understand satisfaction isn't guaranteed.

But the promenade performance can't simply rely on the pro forma contractual terms. It generally has to advance some kind of justification for messing us about so much, and that justification usually takes the form of a promise of enhanced involvement. Still not a guarantee – and hardly enforceable under contract law – but there is an explicit rather than implicit suggestion that in return for milling around on the tail of the actors there will be some kind of payback in terms of intensity of experience. Ellie Jones, the director of Hydrocracker's production of Joe Orton's The Erpingham Camp, which takes place in various locations on Brighton Pier, offered a canonical example in a publicity interview she gave about the show. "People are used to sitting in the dark and watching a play," she said. "But when you involve the audience it feels more real".

Does it really, though? I was one of those involved on the first night of The Erpingham Camp – dragooned into a party of playgoers who had been designated as trainee redcoats, and thus required, for the rest of the evening, to pitch in when it came to serving other campers their fish and chips, or showing them how to make balloon dachshunds at the entertainment evenings. And I don't deny that this made for a jolly and modestly surreal evening – with Orton's farce (loosely based on the Dionysiac frenzy in The Bacchae) unrolling in a space that was also open to the public. But whatever the virtues of this production, realism certainly wasn't one of them. Had I been concentrating less on not getting in the way, it's just about possible that I could have suspended my disbelief and drifted into Orton's world – an arch-caricature of Fifties social reflex. But conspicuously there in the light – only a flinch away from enlistment in the action – there's no escaping the artificiality of the thing.

For one thing, the pretence of involvement is only that – a pretence. The points at which the scene shifts from one place to another disclose this particularly starkly. From being putative redcoats or rioting campers you are instantly – awkwardly – transformed into cattle, to be herded with as much rapidity as possible. The barking of the sheepdogs might be quite imaginatively framed, written in such a way that it meshes with the setting, but the fact that it is crowd-control, not dialogue, is never in doubt. And since there will always be stragglers – or sheep who head off in the wrong direction – the action often has to wait at the crowd's convenience before it can launch forwards again. The reality that is intensely underlined is never that within the play but that which frames it – the fact that these are actors, struggling to preserve an illusion in circumstances that constantly threaten to upend it. A lot of the audience have a whale of a time, though the suspicion arises that they'd enjoy a good knees-up just as much without the attendant play. And then perhaps the rest of us could retire into a dark, secluded room somewhere and hope to forget – for an hour or two – that we are an audience at all.

Bad odour without PC

Reading the recently republished Trevanian thriller The Eiger Sanction, I was startled to come across the following lines, describing the sexual experience of the assassin anti-hero (played in the film adaptation by Clint Eastwood, below): "There were only two kinds of women with whom he had never had experience: Australian Abos and Eskimos. And neither of these ethnic gaps was he eager to fill, for reasons of olfactory sensitivity." A little later Hemlock is admiring an air hostess and checking out "her taut bottom with its characteristic African shape that lifts black women to so convenient an angle". I suppose, at a lubricious pinch, that these might count as hostile characterisation – but the book doesn't really read like that. Hemlock is ruthless and patrician, but I don't think we're meant to think that he's a racist sleazeball as well. It's also virtually impossible to think of a contemporary writer admitting such sentences to a novel without the containing safety-cage of quotation marks – to make it clear this is a character talking and not the author. People moan about political correctness but you only have to travel back 40 years to see how much it's improved the view.

* Public transport and poetry go quite well together – the former pinning down an audience for just long enough to overcome its skittishness about the latter.

Poems on the Underground only treated commuters as readers, though, whereas Network Rail's invitation to passengers to Twitter their own haikus about the British summer acknowledged they might want to write as well.

All this week a large screen at King's Cross has been displaying a selection of the entries to the 100,000 people who pass through the station each day – a neat marriage of technological means and poetic short form, since the 140 characters of a tweet are more than enough to contain the 17 syllables of a haiku. I don't have a Twitter account (and am rather hoping the fad will pass before I eventually get round to it) but I feel someone should use the form to record the possibility that a work of true genius might pop up, for 20 minutes, above travellers too busy – or too preoccupied with their Twitter feeds – to notice it.

A station concourse
The tide flows and ebbs again
Blue moon shines unseen.