Found at Sea / Collapsing the Barrel

Rambles, Theatre

I went to see Greig and Greig‘s Found at Sea at the Traverse. Written by the poet Andrew and adapted by the playwright/director David, it’s a dramatic poem-cycle about sailing an open boat across Scapa Flow to a wee uninhabited island. “Like a road movie, but on the sea” says David Greig, which is a good description: it’s played as journey-of-self-discovery, with a nice combination of evocative scenery, storytelling, music and personal reflection. It’s also at the moment a work in progress, so not quite in its final form.

I was enjoying myself for the first third. The acting (from Tam Dean Burn and Lewis Howden) was boisterous and fun, the poetic textures were tasty, the music pretty beautiful. I wasn’t enchanted yet – that state you reach when a piece of theatre totally carries you away, wraps you up in its own spells – but I could tell that further down the development road I might well be. I was partly feeling, unfairly, a little alienated by the chumminess of the room: the programme notes described Andrew Greig’s poetry as “much loved”, and that really also applies to the four men involved in the production – these were all faces we recognised and had seen in many different guises. There was a sense of playing to the crowd, which was an oldish and very literary sort of crowd.

There were a few things I was confused about. I’ve usually found Andrew Greig’s poetry to be pleasantly understated and rich in ambiguity, but in this production it was played as high dramatic verse. That may be a characteristic of this particular text – I’d need to read it to be sure – and I did enjoy the rich sounds of dramatic verse, underheard now, but I did want more quietness in the words. Orkney is also my home, and I was surprised by how little of it came across in the production: the epic Odysseyean narrative feels a bit big for the islands, Orkney was being used a little as the place to find yourself rather than the place in itself, and the music chosen was an international melange of sea shanties rather than anything from home. These I’m sure were all deliberate decisions, and they only jarred because I was feeling homesick, but it’s worth saying.

So, I was enjoying myself. And then, a third of the way into the show, a barrel collapsed. It was an important bit of set, supporting a mast and key to the blocking of sitting and standing. It had wobbled a bit before, and other pieces of set hadn’t worked quite right – Tam Dean Burn’s deckchair ripped, the actors missed the hooks that bits of wood were supposed to hang on. And then the barrel completely collapsed, falling into a couple of dozen pieces. It was totally brilliant.

At each of the previous set wobbles, the actors soldiered on – “coped well”, says this blog comment. This worked fine with the broken chair, but when the hooks were missed they just ignored the mis-hung words, which makes no dramatic sense – but we’ve all done something like that at some point at an early showing, when the stress is so high. But when the barrel collapsed, there was nothing they could do about it. It just fell to pieces. And here’s what’s important: the barrel fell to pieces, but the show did exactly the opposite.

You couldn’t help noticing the director in the audience, occasionally leaning forward in his seat when a bit of the show creaked, struck by that unbearable pain of not being able to do anything about it. (I know this well.) When the barrel collapsed, you could see an “aw fuck it” so strong in his expression that I’m not sure he didn’t actually say it. He darted onto stage and gathered the pieces of the barrel in his arms, dragging them to the side. Tam Dean Burn was shouting dramatically about the difference between one thing and another, and ad libbed delightfully, “This is the difference between a work in progress and a proper bloody play!” The audience gave its biggest roar yet. In other words, the team did everything other than “cope well”, thankfully. And thereafter, everything in the show was beautiful.

I passed my driving test first time, because I bumped my front left tire into the curb in the first 5 minutes. Knowing this to be a major fault, I assumed I’d failed immediately, so completely relaxed. What I didn’t know is that assessors are willing to overlook an early fault as nerves, if the rest of the test goes well enough. I was so relaxed for the remainder of the drive that I committed no further faults, and was astonished to find at the end that I was legally allowed to keep driving.

When the barrel collapsed, the actors, the audience, the air in the room all relaxed. We were no longer worried about preserving any kind of theatrical dignity – it had been given up for us. When the barrel collapsed, there was no denying that we were crammed into a wee studio with some artists we like – it did more to demolish the fourth wall than any of the more contrived devices in play (direct address to one audience member, handing another a rope). Whether because they lost the mast-stand or just from the direction, there was a great deal less business and a great deal more poetry after the barrel collapsed. And the relationship between the audience and the artists was no longer this awkward half-chummy, half-reverent knowingness, but just a bunch of people enjoying stories and songs and poems together, like a community gathered for a ceilidh. Once the barrel collapsed and that atmosphere had settled, it was clear that this very lovely feeling was what the production had been reaching for all along.

The last two thirds of the show were a delight to me. Nuanced, witty, sad, quiet, angry, confused, beautiful, silly – all of these things wrapped up together in a very uncontrived sort of way. My critical worries began to dispel under the force of the show. I was, more often than not, enchanted.

“Collapsing the barrel” has now entered into my own private artistic argot. At some stage in every show I do, whether on stage or in the process or somewhere else, I’ve got to collapse the barrel. I’ve got to let something go naturally, stupidly wrong so that the show can relax. I’ve got to let the set fall apart so that all pretence can fall apart too. Only rarely will I be lucky enough for this to happen spontaneously with an audience, and still more rarely will I be together enough to cope with it when it does. I’m not quite sure how to make sure that barrels keep collapsing, but I’m looking forward to when they do.

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