AS A Festival-goer, I see myself as a piece of
stern and rockbound cerebral coast-line against which the waves of
cultural aspiration, traditional-comical, pastoral-historical,
historical-topical and spiritual-temporal, lash themselves - often in
vain - in order to make some slight indentation.
Festival audiences do not, generally, fall into a faint or a fit
when some production is considered unsatisfactory. They have paid their
money and made their choice, and most stick to their seats like limpets
on a ship’s hull. A determined few do make the dramatic gesture of
walking out in a marked manner in protest, perhaps, at the opaque
intellectual intricacies or juvenile banalities of some production which
are either above their heads or beneath their contempt and, in between,
are a waste of their precious time and hard-earned money.
For some, the walk-out is an action of nicely-judged
theatricality, sometimes showing more talent than anything seen on the
stage involving heads shaking, bulging cheeks and handkerchieves pressed
against mouths to indicate agony and countenances more in anger than
Such posturings are becoming passe. The new protest takes the
form of significant somnolence; that is a distancing from the production
by falling asleep. Last year - and all this concerns mainly Fringe shows
- I saw and heard soporific stalwarts gently registering their snoring
comments on a production sicklied o’er with a pale and puerile cast.
At one late-night, allegedly humorous show, I saw people slumped
in their seats like felled timber giants, and at another offering, that
displayed less talent and stagecraft than my primary school’s
mixed-ability infants’ offering of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes,
couples could be seen, stark in well-deserved retreat from their
entertainment ordeal, resembling the Confederate dead at Gettysburg.
With some modern plays, sleepers can provide an interesting
enigmatic element. At one production, the audience was jolted into
noticing rhythmic, sonic effects that possibly indicated an element of
growing menace in the western world which helplessly saw old standards
and traditions eroded and changed into something resembling one of the
less cheerful paintings of Breughel.
The breathing, soft at first, then rich and resonant like the
siren of the Queen Mary entering port, affected not only the audience
but also the cast who look-ed at each other in a wild surmise. Because
of my experience as a Festival intellectual, I was also aware that the
sound clearly symbolised the complacency of modern civilisation
surrounded by omnipresent elements of disruption and disaster.
Then, the sound’s source was found. It came from a bearded chap,
well-stricken in years, who could have played Polonius, Lear or Hamlet’s
dad with no or few questions asked, had wandered into the theatre from
the Canongate and alone, in the empty back row, had apparently lodged a
sonorous protest at the intellectual pressures of the production.
Awakened, he fixed us all with a blue-eyed alcoholic glare and left,
The use of sleep, therefore, as a mechanism for Festival
criticism or for other cultural events is a wake-up call to those uneasy
about using more clamorous methods such as booing or the throwing, as
happened in robust Victorian theatres, of ripe fruit.
The trouble with much over-loud and coarse-grained, present-day
drama is that it is often inimical to slumberous protest. As an audience
member at the official Festival offering at the King’s Theatre of
Variety, a drama by Douglas Maxwell about the decline and death of
Scottish variety theatre, I found it hard to register my critical
assessment of the bellowing, boorish and banal production by sinking
into critical but also self-protective oblivion.
My wife and I stoically endured the first 30 minutes of four- and
five-letter expletives exploding from the characters like shrapnel, the
noisy dash around the stage of one portraying a fading comedian, who
flaunted his proletarian vest and uttered tenement stair-head-brawl
obscenities, another character - playing the manager of a doomed,
provincial variety theatre - who sang a Harry Lauder favourite in a way
that would once have earned from the outraged audience a barrage of
fruit and veg, and a plodding, indifferently-acted plot, until we could
endure no more. Sleep being impossible, we slipped silently away.
The Festival director, Bryan McMaster, should know that the
production kept many critical audience members agonisingly awake. If I
see him, I’ll tell him so. Meanwhile, I’ll sleep on it.