There’s an important question anyone involved in theatre ought to ask themselves from time to time: why theatre? Has live theatre been rendered irrelevant by cinema, or by TV drama, which has, by any standards, entered a golden age of creativity and innovation?
Of course there’s the standard argument that theatre is a necessary testing ground for the big-money media: it provides an opportunity to blood young practitioners, and to take creative risks that aren’t as easy to take in fields where the financial stakes are much higher. A valid argument, but I’m not crazy about the notion that my line of work is destined to be forever the junior partner. Poor relation for sure, but…
Most art forms have endured similar identity crises in the face of technological advances. Why, for instance, would you want your portrait painted when you can take a selfie? Well, lots of reasons, obviously. Lucien Freud, say, is surely just as worthy of our attention as Mapplethorpe (or indeed, Vermeer) because we see in Freud’s paintings something more than a mere likeness: we see the subject through the artist’s eyes; we appreciate the individual vision and admire the mastery of the medium, and, importantly, we feel a unique closeness, both to the artist and his subject.
Play is a primal, deeply ingrained human instinct, and it’s linked intrinsically, linguistically and practically, with theatre.
In theatre too, closeness is a powerful factor. A play is a communal experience like no other – any actor will tell you that an audience affects, shapes, and contributes to a performance, making that performance a unique, unrepeatable experience. Screen drama, for all its brilliance, is always felt at one remove, as recorded events, impervious to change.
Arthur Riordan (second from left) with the cast of Kings Of The Kilburn High Road.
At the moment I’m performing in Jimmy Murphy’s play, The Kings of the Kilburn High Road. The play is a masterclass in closeness and immediacy. You’re thrown into the world of these hard drinking, hard-fighting London-Irish labourers, with their rough lives and bad attitudes. The initial effect is akin to finding yourself in that beat-up old pub with them, witnessing a conversation you probably shouldn’t be witnessing, but you can’t look away. Through Murphy’s beautifully honed craft, you soon find yourself laughing with them, rooting for them, taking sides, maybe even crying for them, but above all, empathising with them. That’s what theatre does. It’s messy and of the moment, there are real people in front of you – not scaled up or down to fit a screen – and as an audience you’re involved, breathing the same air; you’re implicated.
This is certainly something that Irish audiences are well attuned to. ‘Kings’ toured earlier this year to extraordinary receptions. At almost every venue, we’d meet people eager to tell us this was their story, or that of their fathers, uncles or brothers. It’s a great feeling, knowing you’ve touched a nerve.
A play is a communal experience like no other – any actor will tell you that an audience affects, shapes, and contributes to a performance, making that performance a unique, unrepeatable experience.
The ever entertaining and insightful Brian Eno said once that children learn about the world through play, and that art is the way adults play. Play is a primal, deeply ingrained human instinct, and it’s linked intrinsically, linguistically and practically, with theatre. Theatre may not be the purest form of art, but it certainly has a claim to be the purest form of, well, play.
Actor and playwright Arthur Riordan stars in The Kings Of The Kilburn High Road, which plays at Dublin's Gaeity Theatre from 1-12 November - more information here.