The other meaning, and the one I now have in mind for this blog, is to do with live performance. I’m thinking particularly of the theatre because that has always been a love of mine.
My love of theatre goes back to the very early days of the National Theatre, which was housed at its foundation in the Old Vic theatre in 1962. As a young teenager I would go along to queue for tickets on the day. For a couple of shillings I would get tickets for ‘the Gods’, that balcony right at the top of the building – a distant view but I could still see Laurence Olivier, Maggie smith, Robert Stephens performing in great plays. I particularly remember The Recruiting Officer, Saturday/Sunday/Monday and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
Many years later I was lucky to get the dream jobs of working on the National Theatre brand, then on the Old Vic. My time advising and writing for the Old Vic began when Kevin Spacey took over as Artistic Director in 2003. He said he would stay for ten years, but the cynical view was that he would be gone after a season or two.
Last week I saw Clarence Darrow, Kevin Spacey’s swan song at the Old Vic. A ten year commitment had turned into twelve. In his time he has helped revive the Old Vic through adventurous programming and a commitment to the local community. Of course he used his Holloywood glamour, but it was for a good cause.
Clarence Darrow (so good I saw it twice) was a one-man play by writer David W Rintels about a crusading American lawyer in the early 20th century. He famously defended a teacher accused of the ‘crime’ of teaching Darwinian evolution; he fought against capital punishment in many cases; he stood up for the most vulnerable underdogs. The play enabled Kevin Spacey to be that liberal lawyer, interacting brilliantly with the audience, sometimes addressing rows of the audience as ‘members of the jury’. The production was ‘in the round’ – another Spacey innovation in the Old Vic that temporarily transforms the traditional proscenium theatre into a show where the stage is surrounded on all sides by the audience.
At the end, as he spoke Clarence Darrow’s last words “…that mercy is the highest attribute of man” the lights went down and the whole audience rose to their feet. It was a standing ovation to hail a magnificent performance by a great actor. It was also to say thank you for twelve years. It was to express the emotion of being part of a live experience.
I’ve recently had interesting conversations with Matthew Warchus who is taking over as Artistic Director. Here are some words I wrote for him after one of those conversations:
There is an overwhelming power – one that was a transforming experience for me when young – in live performance. It’s what keeps me coming back to what I do, and it’s what brings people back to places like this, to feel the surge of energy. There is nothing more powerful than being one of an audience that laughs together, that takes in a breath together, that raises a cheer of shared emotion at the end of a performance.
That is what the Old Vic is for.
Not just the Old Vic – all live theatre can do this. As writers, as human beings, we need to have that experience regularly. It’s all about the power of emotional connection.