Theatre has been around since as early as the 5th century, finding its rise in the Theatre of Dionysus in Ancient Greece. In the 1600s, more than a millennium later, Shakespeare brought his plays to the globe for all of England to see; now these same plays, as well as a slew of new pieces, play on constant rotation on the West End. Theatre has much evolved throughout the centuries, from its set design to the venues themselves, and now editing can create effects on the silver screen we could never otherwise see. So why is there still such a desire to return to theatre? How has it not become an outdated art form by now?
The true goal of good theatre is to make one forget entirely that they are watching actors play pretend on a stage. Viewers are invited to imagine that they are in different spaces in each scene, without ever getting out of their seats. This is what draws us to theatre and be transported. Two plays I recently viewed accomplish this in very different but convincing ways, be warned spoilers lie ahead…
This classic play based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, has been adapted to theatre and even into film. Having watched them both(and read the novel) I find them very similar, and I do mean this very positively, as this is not a simple feat. To many, it is a story about the French Revolution, but in my opinion, the revolution is just a backdrop for Hugo’s ideas on morality, religion, and poverty. The current West End adaptation of Les Miserables is a must-see, and somehow mimics (or even outdoes) the effects of Hollywood. This is in large part due to its immaculate set design, which changes dramatically from scene to scene. Viewers get to see entire homes emerge, barricades be lifted, and bombs fly across the stage. In a particular scene, the gunshots were so realistic, they could be felt in the stalls as though they might land at your side. Another interesting device was the use of projection lighting to dramatically shift the atmosphere, from a rainy day to the gutters of Paris. All of this in conjunction turns a theatre seat into a time machine. However, all of this can be very fragile, and sometimes all it takes is someone chewing loudly by you, or a technical difficulty to remind you just where you are. It’s a very careful balance, that when correctly achieved is magical.
For the rare reader who has not heard of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, allow me to give a quick synopsis. It tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton in a musical rap format with a full POC cast to flip the narrative of an otherwise colonizing history. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote it based on the biography of Hamilton and the play follows him from adolescence past the end of his life. It opens on Alexander freshly arrived in New York, and is hungry to join the revolution. During the war, he meets his wife Eliza and has his first son Phillip. After the war, he returns home to become a lawyer and eventually treasurer of the United States. Following the loss of his son, he moves uptown and removes himself from the world of politics, until he is forced to re-enter it. He loses his life in a duel and his wife tells his story for the rest of her days. All of this happens within the span of fewer than three hours with very few costume changes and virtually no new sets. Yet, we are transported, immersed in the lives of characters who have been dead for hundreds of years. Contrary to the example of Les Mis, Hamilton in my opinion relies on its lack of concrete props and set to render the story believable. Were we to see this modern rap spectacle set in an 18th-century village it would be very difficult to reconcile the two. However, leaving so much up to the imagination of the viewers allows for the real magic to happen. It also puts a focus on the dance and vocal performance which are the real stars of the show. This is why so many, myself included, would argue against a film adaptation of the play. Theatre allows for a certain air of mystery which leaves some of the work up to the audience while television does not.