Ruinous Theatre: An article written for Sea Breeze publication

It is no accident that Terry Gilliam’s time traveling hero James Cole finds himself holed up in a disused theatre in his gloriously flawed film, Twelve Monkeys (1995).

In a movie about the mutating possibilities of time travel set against the context of global catastrophe the scenes in the dilapidated Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House are particularly poignant.  They carry weight not only because of the beautiful ruinous state of the location but also because they remind us that the theatre event always concerns itself with time – time in its multiplicity, its frailty and ultimately in how thinking about temporality directs us to consider how things might be and how they might end and, of course, the vertiginous sense of our own temporariness: our mortality.

The ruined theatre seems catastrophic because we are made painfully aware, through the scale of desolation, the audacity of its architecture, with the building’s design bent solely on the purpose of pointing all attention towards the stage, of the fragility of human utterance and action.  Stalls, circle, Gods, the back stage machinery, all are there to insist that we watch the illuminated action on what is usually a disproportionally smaller space.  And in the ruinous state, with the theatre laid out like a decaying body on a mortuary slab, the arrogance and clumsiness of the theatrical turn is painfully exposed.

And yet in the space of the ruined theatre, in the space of the Winter Gardens, the space of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House (how grand these names sound) I am compelled to think, to imagine, the performances, the events that took place on the stage.  In this sense I embark on my own version of time travel journeying back to performances that have somehow lodged in my memory and transporting them to these empty stages.  It begins with my own experience: children’s nativities and angels with cardboard wings, puppet shows with an orchestra compiled out of familiar and strange animals, then Bernard Shaw, the brothers Capek’s The Insect Play and then Shakespeare twisting the mind with his extraordinary verse.  Then there are the musicals, operas, pop concerts and the work that has challenged form and convention, theatre that has moved and offended, theatre that has provoked its audience to sit in stunned silence, to walk out in droves.  And then there are the shows that I know I never really saw live, but have imagined them as if I were there, Zelig-like, sitting on the third row, drinking in all their extraordinary eventfulness.

The decaying shells of theatre, its ruinous spaces, are not new phenomenon, products of the onset of modernity that stood tall before our notion of entertainment moved away from the concept of mass gatherings.  We see them everywhere, amongst the rubble of other ruins in Greece, in the Roman Empire and in the foundations of modern buildings in London.  And if we stretch the concept of theatre to include ritual, festival and celebration then these ruins are truly global.  Even the most modern theatres, those glass and steel palaces that seem designed to give cultural confidence in an increasingly insecure world, have the ruined state of theatre inscribed within their walls.  Maybe this is a result of the fact that the basic model of theatre is unchanged: auditorium, stage, back stage; audience in the dark, performers lit (this is why the reversal in Sea Breeze, with the audience on the stage looking at the illuminated auditorium is a wonderful reversal).  These modern stages, despite all their architectural arrogance, cannot buttress against theatre’s innate fragility, its temporariness.  What is more, the action on the contemporary stage is always built upon, and is thus beholden to, the performances of the past.  This might not be immediately visible but it is always felt – a kind of invisible patina where the dramaturgies, scenographies, the sound and words that make up the past, replay in endlessly new formations: new worlds always built from the debris of older ones.  

This state of affairs is not tragic, although the plight of individual buildings such as the Winter Gardens in Morecambe might appear so. Ruins compel us to think what came before and ultimately what might come next.  They drag us back but they also push us ahead.  In this sense they are theatres, playing with fact, fiction, space, time, what we imagined took place.  And like theatre nothing fastens in these decaying environments.  Meaning empties out and then returns with the next contemplation.  This is the tide race of the encounter that ruins everything and surely we would not want it any other way?