Peter Brooks rather boldly declared that he could ‘take any empty space and call it a bare stage.’ For Brooks, the primary requisite of theatre is that someone walks across an empty space and another person watches. There aren’t many who’d disagree with this reasoning, at least not in Durham, where the ratio of purpose-built theatre spaces to theatre companies is somewhere around 1:4 or higher. We need all the empty spaces we can get if our insatiable thirst for theatre is to be quenched.
But just how far are we willing to watch a play in any empty space in Durham? Early last semester I paid my first and, to this point at least, last visit to Hild Bede College. It was also my first theatre trip in Durham so you can imagine how gosh-darned excited I was. The play – The Graduate – was terrific and I said as much in these pages the next day. But I was not at all prepared for the auditorium set-up HBT plumped for. A raised platform with a slight gradient was positioned in the middle of Hild Bede’s secondary-school-chic hall. This was fine insofar as the audience did not have to strain their necks or sit too far from the stage in order to avoid doing so. The drama itself took place on the lower ground trough beneath the much larger stage and the makeshift auditorium.
On leaving Hild Bede I wondered whether it is possible to really engage with a play performed in a wider space that looks like a set from Grange Hill. It’s not easy, but clearly it can be done. Every year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, thousands of plays are performed in the most uncommon of spaces. Indeed, part of the novelty of some shows is seeing them performed in abandoned railway stations, town house basements, and repurposed breweries. And, more to the point, if I can engage with a play put on in these conditions, then surely I can engage better with plays performed in bigger, purpose-built spaces – like The Assembly Rooms.
In theory that would seem to be the case. But many things work in theory. The fact is that I have reeled and snoozed through more shows in The Assembly Rooms and Gala Theatre than I have in any naff college hall. There is also an undeserving weight of expectation attached to shows performed in these theatres because they are, well, performed in actual theatres. If I tell friends I’m seeing a show in a proper Durham theatre they seem impressed somehow. It’s as if the competition for space in Durham is so vicious that only the very best plays may be shown in these spaces. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that this is poppycock. Space may be limited, but finding the right space is key.
This choice of space is intimately bound up with the director’s other considerations. Take, for example, the recent production of The Dumb Waiter at the City Theatre. If you haven’t visited the city theatre I recommend you go at least once; it is one of the most oppressive theatre spaces I have ever sat in. Everything – stage, stalls, backstage – is cramped and closed-in. Not ideal for a full-length production of Les Mis; perfect, however, for a shorter work by Pinter. It would come as no surprise if the directors of The Dumb Waiter had chosen City Theatre specifically for its oppressive atmosphere – what better venue for a play set in a disused basement kitchen.
I have had the pleasure of seeing many different plays performed in an array of different spaces all around Durham. Whilst I may have held some predisposition towards watching drama in purpose-built theatres, this prejudice has only ever been undermined by the various productions I have seen. In other words: I’m a tremendous snob and these student theatre companies are making me a better person. Given my first theatre experience here was in Caedmon Hall, I should know better than to judge plays by their venues. Good theatre draws us away from our surroundings and throws us head-first into an unfamiliar space. If it can do that, the only distractions we should see are those permitted by the play. The most apt conclusion: there is no such thing as bad theatre spaces, only bad productions.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre