Smoke without fire

The beautiful thing about the International Festival is that I’m covering very little of it for anyone else, so I get to write about it here. Tonight I saw the final performance of Dybbuk, performed in Polish by TR Warszawa. I’ve seen it criticised for being too obscure, but I fail to see that. It’s a ghost story. Just because they call the ghost a dybbuk doesn’t make it difficult to understand. Here’s the gist, since it’s over now and I can talk about it without the fear of spoiling it:

Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Boy dies. Girl marries Boy 2. First boy’s ghost turns up to the wedding and possesses the bride. Rabbi has a chat with the ghost to figure out what it wants. It emerges that there was some grudge about a broken promise between the boy’s dead father and the girl’s living one and that’s why everything has gone horribly wrong. Girl wanders about the stage like a cross between Lucia di Lammermoor and the scary kid from The Exorcist then collapses. She continues to talk to the dybbuk but there’s some ambiguity about whether it has left her body and she’s just traumatised or whether it’s still there.

So there you have it. For “rabbi” read “Mulder and Scully”, put it on in English at 9pm on a weeknight and I doubt many people would be complaining about the obscure origins of the tale. It’s not important to understand the history of the mythology, you understand the story already because it’s a pretty old story.

Anyway, the important thing is not the mythology, the important thing is that from my seat in the front row I could hardly see a bloody thing! The stage of the King’s Theatre had been extended so it nearly touched row A of the stalls, and for some reason the director had decided to put lots of furniture downstage, blocking the sightlines for (I suspect) the front half of the stalls. Fill that furniture with a lot of static actors, as was often done, and you’ve got a lot of action going on where a significant proportion of the audience can’t see it. I have no idea why anyone would do this. I don’t forgive amateur companies for messing up the basics like that, let alone companies appearing at the Festival!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the deliberate breaking of theatrical conventions to serve particular effects. But there are some rules that you don’t break, and for good reasons. People paid for those tickets because they wanted to see a play, not because they thought it might be interesting to hear a play going on while they stared at a table for 75% of the show’s duration. I suspect that the moment when the possessed bride grabbed her unsuspecting husband in an extremely aggressive kiss was quite powerful visually, but I wouldn’t know for certain because all I could see was a lot of legs. Yes, I know the people in the circle paid a bit more than the people in the stalls, but not that much more.

The other issue that Dybbuk threw up was that of hazers, more commonly referred to as smoke machines. There was a lot of haze, or smoke, or whatever you care to call it. Inevitably, it billowed out into the auditorium and people began to cough. Could theatre audiences stop being such drama queens, please? It’s not real smoke. Theatres are subject to health and safety regulations just like everyone else, they are not allowed to try to kill you simply because it serves the piece. And where would the actors be if real smoke were used in such vast amounts? First they’d walk straight off the stage and end up sprawled in the lap of someone in row A (probably me), then they’d find themselves in casualty being treated for smoke inhalation.

Hazers use water. Some haze solutions contain oil, but most of the time they’re water-based. The whole point of this is that the haze catches the light so it is visible enough to suggest smoke or fog or simply a weird atmosphere, but it’s fine enough that you can see through it (smoke and good visibility don’t generally go together, and as you can tell from the last section I’m not a fan of poor visibility in theatres) and it won’t choke the cast.

The presence of a little water in the air does not cause people to cough. If it did you’d be having a very hard time of it in Edinburgh at the moment, since there has been rather a lot of water passing through the air on its way to the ground. So next time you see a show involving smoky effects, ask yourself whether you can see through the supposed smoke and whether the cast are responding to it. If they are, the chances are that the safety curtain will soon be lowered and the building evacuated, or that it’s part of the play and they’re acting. If they’re not, it’s haze. Don’t cough. Your energies are better spent glaring at people who are not privy to this secret about hazers and insist on coughing theatrically, or perhaps on watching the play. It is what you paid for, after all.


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