Virtually real

9 April 2020

 Joseph Winer on an emotional experience watching One Man Two Guvnors

Like 200,000 other households across the country on Thursday evening, I cosied up on my sofa and tuned in to the National Theatre’s live screening of One Man Two Guvnors. (I actually tuned in late and spent a good amount of time trying to work out how to play from start on my television, but we got there eventually). 

I remember seeing this show when it was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2013. I had one of those horrible sniffly winter colds and debated not going. Farce and physical comedy were one of my first introductions to theatre – my local amdram used to put them on every summer and I was totally in awe of it all. This was very much the same. I laughed a lot. It’s that dinner scene at the end of the first half that really did it for me. And the bit with the [spoiler] hummus.

Anyhow, I knew that watching a recording wasn’t quite going to be the same. The liveness of the ‘improvisation’ was in response to a different audience. An archived one. I become a spectator partly spectating other spectators, and couldn’t relish in the joy of sharing that experience with a few hundred people around me. 

Before the show started, a few notes popped up on the screen, one which read ‘Theatre and the arts are a positive force for our community in turbulent times’. 

I proper started sobbing at this. Didn’t know why at first, it just sort of hit me and I had a little cry. I think I/we spend a lot of time talking about how theatre brings communities together. And don’t get me wrong, I think it really can, and does. But it seems to spend so much time excluding people. As 200,000 households shared this experience together, it felt like it was genuinely inclusive, bringing lots of different communities together to make an audience. I wouldn’t even class it as a favourite show or anything, but I think that one of the biggest achievements of theatre as a form is its ability to forge meaningful connections between strangers. And it felt like that’s what it did. It only took a quick look to see it trending on twitter to prove that. 

It seems fitting that the NT chose to screen this commedia dell’arte inspired show as its first in a series of screenings. And, sorry because I’m about to turn into that commedia-dick that Francis (James Corden) refers to in the second half. But the beauty of commedia was its function in bringing together people from all sorts of backgrounds. As street performances in 16th century Italy, it welcomed audiences across the class divisions. It turned an elite model of entertainment into a publicly accessible spectacle, with characters and scenarios that a wide set of demographics could relate to and collectively enjoy. 

Referring to the pandemic as ‘turbulent’ feels like an understatement. Sure, turbulence sums up the chaos, the disorder, but makes it sort of feel like a storm that just whistles through the streets and forces us into our homes. It doesn’t really summarise the impact of what’s going on right now: the impact on those in our communities who were already disadvantaged and now could lose their lives, livelihoods or homes as a result of this. But then, theatre’s not necessarily there to change the world, not in a tangible sense I don’t think. Not for the most-part anyway. For me, that statement, that ‘positive force’ is what it’s all about. 200,000 households sitting down together to watch a Richard Bean comedy is hardly going to change lives. But what it can do is bring a united sense of positivity, of laughter in attempt to combat, even only slightly, the very real tragedy that we’re seeing on our television screens every other hour of the day.

It feels rare that a single thing could connect every single person on the planet, but that’s what’s happening right now. We’re coming together as a global community. And in such crises, theatre is not going to save the world. But it can bring people together and remind us that we all definitely do turn to artists at times of struggle.  When the world caves in and everything around us stops, we can switch on the telly, pick up a book or listen to music. It’s going to be really easy for businesses and individuals to withhold their support for freelancers, especially artists at the end of all this. So let’s hope they remember those of us who brought a positive force into their lives, and who no doubt will be there the next time our communities find themselves struck by turbulence. 

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: National Theatre At Home