It was late evening. Tucked away in a small alley off the main square like a glass prism spilling out its contents among dark solid, opaque silhouettes of the buildings on either side of the alleyway was the Toneelschuur in Harlem. Through the dark alleyway, illuminated by the light from the foyer I walked towards the obscure entrance. I was there to have my first proper experience of a play.
The play I was supposed to witness was supposed to be staged in an auditorium of what must have been able to accommodate 120 spectators in about 10 rows but now shortened in size by screens to show only 4 rows. There must have been forty or less people when I entered, everyone much older than I was. Four actors, also old, were setting up the props and adding, to themselves, layers upon layers of both masculine and feminine clothes suited to a play that was supposed to explore the general themes set in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
And that was as far as my understanding of the content of the play went. For the rest of the play, my innocence as to the language and the theatrical experience proved as reliable obstacles in keeping me comfortably distant from any kind of understanding. But all was for good I suppose.
I entered this auditorium and was immediately struck by the intimacy of the setting. A sense of intimacy and familiarity that grew only stronger with the auditorium doors shut from the rest of the world that I might have suspected to have intruded upon a family event if I hadn’t know any better.
No level separated what was to be the place where the play was supposed to be enacted and the level onto which one entered the small auditorium. The stepped rake upon which we, the spectators, sat only seemed like a natural addition to the floor level that was soon to become a stage. It was a sense of feeling that we were not just mute spectators but part of the events that unfolded in that room that has momentarily been isolated from the rest of the world. Not to mention the individual chuckles from the old man who was sitting two rows in front of me that broke into a funny laughter much like the ones that slip out despite one’s earnest attempts to restrain it; the restlessness of the slightly older woman effected by her half amusement and half annoyance at this aural addition to the dialogue of the characters in play; the chair that began to grow increasingly uneasy and people shifting in hope to find that elusive comfort while all the while losing not a bit of concentration over what was being enacted reinforced that sense of intimacy.
A smile broke out from me when someone laughed hard at some occurrence over the course of play. I tried to decipher if the action was scripted or not by trying to decipher the general mood of the audience. In short, I was trying to keep my bearings and make up for what I lost in language in reading the general emotion of the people who watched it. How uniquely different was this experience then compared to screened projections even in the cosiest of home-theatres?
As for the play itself, I was constantly left trying to grasp what it was about. The most perplexing part of the play for me was to follow if the characters stayed in their imagined world or reached out occasionally to the world we as spectators inhabited. I suppose they did both. I have no means of judging the quality of the play simply because I do not have many, if not any, examples to go by.
Chances are that I might have seen some brilliant unfolding of a theatrical play and I wouldn’t even know. Something similar to what Ernest Hemmingway warns of the person who is ignorant of Spanish bull-fighting seeing a bull-fight for the first time and never have the means to experience it fully in all its nuances. A more personal example would be my first experience with wine. It was initially only a sour tasting liquid that cannot be taken in more than smaller sips at a time whose taste changed with time between the sip and while the taste lingers. But with time, I began to know better, better enough to appreciate it as art that has seen its refinement over several centuries. The same I can say of Indian classical music.
But nevertheless, my first experience of a play has not been bad I’d say.