150+ essays on literary topics
Athens, 440 BCE. Thousands flock to the theatre to see Antigone, a new play by Sophocles. Admission free.
Shropshire, c1980. Two little children invite their parents to watch a play they have just made up. Admission 10p.
Yorkshire, 2021. A new version of Antigone called Aaliyah by Kamal Kaan is performed by Freedom Studios in a first floor room in Bradford. Admission free or pay what you can afford.
The eponymous Aaliyah is a young British Asian woman whose brother, Syeed, is about to be deported. She is the modern Antigone. Imani, her sister, is the modern Ismene. Parveen Parvaiz, Home Secretary, is the modern Creon.
Perhaps more to the point, Parveen Parvaiz, appearing in television broadcasts to the nation and on Zoom in conversation with Aaliyah, bears a striking resemblance to Priti Patel, the real Home Secretary. Only at the end, when she appears in person, looking aged and haggard, more like an outcast than a Secretary of State, is she wholly Creon.
Whether in an amphitheatre in ancient Greece, a house in Shropshire or a first floor room in Bradford, each of these performances relies to a significant degree on the willingness of the audience, in the words of Coleridge, to ‘suspend their disbelief’, and on the ability of the performers, in the words of the Prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V, to work on their ‘imaginary forces’.
We are often exhorted to work on our physical forces by walking or cycling or working out in the gym. But it is not only British bodies that have grown obese, the same thing has happened to British imaginations.
The simple theatre of Sophocles, little children and Freedom Studios, has been replaced by a theatre that emulates the big and little screens on which most plays are now performed. The special effects that excited audiences in Ben Jonson’s day and led him to earn his living as a producer of masques, rather than a writer of plays, have made our imaginary forces redundant.
Today’s productions of Henry V don’t rely on the audience’s imagination, they do it all for them. The Prologue to each act can be cut and often is. There’s no need to begin Act III with the Chorus saying, “Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies,” when it flies on its own with the wings of virtual reality.
Freedom Studios and other theatre companies who ask their audiences to pay what they can afford (or what they think it’s worth) can only afford to do so by leaving nearly everything to the audience’s imagination. Aaliyah was performed, not in a theatre, but a bare room, with two rows of chairs for the audience to sit on and a set consisting of desks and chairs to represent the office where Aaliyah and her sister work as cleaners. Little children putting on a play for their parents often do more.
Did we, the audience, wish that we were in a proper theatre? I did not and, if the applause at the end was anything to go by, neither did anyone else. We believed in the characters because we wanted to and they were believable. There were none of the usual theatrical distractions – lighting, set, music – just the actors and our imaginations, taking wing together.
The important word in Coleridge’s phrase is the adjective. The audience must be willing to suspend its disbelief. We have to want to go along with the pretence, just as parents do when their children put on a play for them, and we have to make an effort of imagination. Not easy if your imagination has grown fat and lazy.
If Aaliyah reminded me of sitting in a room watching my children putting on a play, the reason was not because the acting was no better than my children’s. It was of course much better. Rather it was because both had an honesty about them which comes naturally to children, but which – let’s be honest – most of us lose to varying degrees when we put childhood behind us.
For actors, who are trained to pretend, to do by skill what children do naturally, acting can too easily become just an act. A simple theatre, as we might call it, needing only a shared space, with honest acting on one side and ‘imaginary forces’ on the other, has the added advantage of saving money.
If theatres asked audiences to pay only what they could afford, theatre would no longer be the luxury it has become, but a common good, as necessary to us as it was to the Athenians. Slaves and women sat at the back, but nobody had to pay.