First published in the Irish Independent on March 31
Earlier this month I attended a theatrical performance in the Courthouse Art Centre in Tinahely in County Wicklow. There were two short monologues, both performed by Cora Fenton, co founder of Call Back Theatre. The second piece was called Bonfire Night. It was narrated by a middle aged woman with a history of disappointments and left to care for her elderly father. It was bonfire night and she was heading out. Oh, and she had a gun. The monologue riffed backwards and forwards through her life but always seemed to come back to the gun.
It was very much Chekhov’s gun and we all knew it was going to be used. However, when the moment came it was totally unexpected and the audience reacted with a collective intake of breath.
The Courthouse is a tiny centre and sadly, due to clash with another drama festival in Wicklow, there were only ten people in the entire audience. So as to show solidarity with the actor I insisted to my friend and fellow writer that we sit in the front row. We were two feet from the actor.
That level of intimacy is very powerful. It is hard to know where the actor finished and I began. I noticed she directed a lot of her dialogue to my male friend. And every so often she would make eye contact with me – but it was still as though we were separated by Perspex with her on stage and me on my front row chair.
Last week we were all given a glimpse into theatrical nature of reality on BBC World News when Korean expert Robert E Kelly was live broadcasting a segment. Just as he began his report first one child opened the door behind him to gatecrash his broadcast, swiftly followed by another, amusingly twirling around in a baby walker like a lost car from a carnival waltzer. The two children were then quickly followed by a woman who scooped both up, but from a crouching position apparently to avoid the camera, but in fact making the spectacle look even weirder. Kelly glanced back once but continued talking, putting out his hand to push his toddler out of view.
The internet, that other arbitrator of what is real, went a bit mad. Who was the woman? A nanny or wife? It turned out to be his wife. A number of copycat memes appeared next, the funniest being that of a woman in Kelly’s place but when interrupted by her children she manages to bounce them on her lap, check the Sunday roast, find odd socks and even detonate a bomb without missing a beat. The interest ended up with Kelly giving a press conference with his family. He acknowledged sadly that this video will probably be the opening line in his obituary and yes, he was wearing pants (the most asked question after if the woman was his wife or nanny).
This is not new of course, except in the way the internet pounces on its soft prey. Back in 1977 Angela Rippon, one of the first female BBC newscasters, caused a sensation when she joined Morecambe and Wise in a show. The scene began harmlessly enough, with Angela reading the news, before she pushed aside the desk, flashing her dancer legs and embarking on a routine that gave her enough credit to present Strictly Come Dancing.
Even the American Eagle from The Muppets knows news is an illusion. He gave a serious news broadcast in which he bemoaned that animals, and even birds, were shockingly naked under their fur and feathers. The scene closes with the Eagle realising it applied to him also and he slinks out of camera clutching his wings on the bits that might be exposed.
We all know the broadcasting is a form of entertainment, even when news is the diet, but we suspend belief when it is presenting in a formal setting. Kelly is a dad and husband working abroad and using Skype to present his reports. We don’t want to know he has a young family and we all hope he is wearing pants.
Maybe that is why Trump’s tweets are so disconcerting. It is not just the juxtaposition of serious policy with pure Hollywood entertainment, it is the timing. Trump often posts some of his more outrageous claims and taunts at silly o’clock in the morning. It is hard to see him at a desk making those tweets. It is much more likely he is standing in the kitchen, perhaps at the open fridge, perhaps in his non-existent dressing gown. But if Spicer is right then at 5am he may only be wearing a teeshirt or just his underwear. Or perhaps nothing at all. We don’t like to get our information from naked people, especially not the President of the United States of America. Put some clothes on for goodness sake, Sir.
The lines blur all the time but should we cross them? Prior to attending the theatre on March 10th I prepared a dish of what mostly consisted of garlic. To my ruination the fact was forcibly making itself clear during the performance. During the delivery of Bonfire Night and leading, had I but known it, to the black humorous denouement of the play, I reached forward and picked up my handbag. I slowly and quietly opened the zip and searched blindly for some chewing gum. Successfully I found my prize, extracted a pellet and stopped fouling the air with my garlic. I was still two foot from my actor and my gaze never left her face.
Afterwards in the pub the actor stopped to speak with us. She looked at me and remarked that I was in the front row. I confirmed that I was. Then she looked at me harshly.
She had been convinced, by my lifting my bag onto my lap, that I was about to leave the theatre. Operating as we were on a ten man audience my supposed departure would have been tragic. Even as she acted her role in front of me, inside she was screaming at me not leave, to wait for the killer line.
When reality punctures the mask of self-projection, the best we can ask for is to be wearing pants. I just hope the President is. Or at least he has read Tweet Naked by Scott Levy https://www.amazon.com/Tweet-Naked-Bare-All-Strategy-Boosting/dp/1599185156/