Don’t hug that guy [May 28]
The man sitting beside me on the saggy couch is trying not to cry. I’m trying not to put my arms around his shoulders and give him a comforting hug. It’s not because I’m shy. It’s because he’s an actor playing a man who is about to cry and I’m an audience member. It would ruin the scene.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in April and we’re in a farmhouse just out of Melbourne. My friend Bagryana Popov, a theatre director, has decided to tear down the fourth wall and invite us into Uncle Vanya’s living-room. Chekhov’s play was written 120 years ago and set in pre-revolutionary rural Russia. This production is set right now, in the goldfields region of Victoria. Listening to the characters talking about the importance of protecting the environment, the pain of unrequited love and the dignity of hard work, the play still feels as fresh as the autumn wind.
It’s forty years since I started going to the theatre. I’ve reviewed it, chewed it over with friends, and even performed in it. Until this weekend, though, I’m not sure I could have explained why.
We all know that the characters in plays are not ‘real’. We know the stories are usually fictional, the sets constructed, the props pre-prepared. This knowledge helps us keep some emotional distance, even when we’re caught up in the drama. But sitting beside Uncle Vanya on that couch, feeling his shoulders shake, no distance is possible. I am deep inside this imaginary world, swamped by empathy.
Outside the living room window the rain is pouring down. We can see the creek at the bottom of the slope, the bare paddocks behind it. We know where all the trees have gone because a ‘real’ visiting botanist talked to us about de-forestation in between acts. When the characters in the play debate the importance of tree planting, we understand the stakes. Instead of being outside looking in on the staged drama, we the audience members are inside, looking out at the place that has shaped these characters’ lives.
Like a tree, a good play can span multiple generations. Like a tree, a good theatre production is multi-layered. Under the surface of this intimate tale of a rural family in crisis there are generations of history, layers of grief, cycles of regret and hope. Like a tree, it is a living thing.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2018)