For a little treat the other night (well…a rather expensive treat actually) it was off to see the MTC production of The Importance of Being Earnest. To get ourselves in the mood we watched Wilde starring Stephen Fry the night before, and sitting in the Sumner Theatre on Tuesday night, I was very much aware that we were laughing away at the same lines, probably delivered in much the same way to the audience at its opening night on St Valentine’s Day 1895. It was a very traditional performance- no postmodern trickery or contemporary insertions here- and I felt rather overawed to be three rows away from one of the world’s greatest actors, Geoffrey Rush, right here in our shared home town.
What a striking, imperious and handsome Lady Bracknell he makes! (even though I don’t particularly think of Geoffrey Rush as handsome.) He clearly relished rolling around in the language, and being so close, we could see every raised eyebrow and every moue. The rest of the cast was very good too, although if I had to name any criticism it would be at the slightly over-rehearsed delivery of Algernon’s lines. I recall Fry’s character in Wilde issuing the injunction that the lines should be delivered as sparkling, off-the-cuff repartee, rather than something that had been memorized and enunciated, and I think that the same observation could be made here too.
Two odd things about our night at the theatre though. One was the sight of a very pushy woman, approaching everybody in the front row, asking them if instead of enduring their front row seat, they would be willing to swap with her seat at the back (“See, where the man is waving?”). When someone asked her if there was a particular reason, she said that she liked to be able to see their faces close up- well, don’t we all? What amazed me was that someone actually did swap with her.
The second odd thing was an email we received a couple of days prior to the performance. We have just endured a couple of hot days, and the email cautioned that the stage was heavily airconditioned for the comfort of the actors on stage in heavy costumes, and that as we were sitting in the front rows, we might want to bring a jacket or shawl. It was good advice- it did get chilly after a while.
Patrons might have appreciated advice about their big night out at at Melbourne’s first theatre during the 1840s too. The Pavilion, later renamed the Theatre Royal, was located on the east side of Bourke Street, between Elizabeth and Collins Street. Garryowen describes it as:
one of the queerest fabrics imaginable. Whenever the wind was high it would rock like an old collier at sea, and it was difficult to account for it not heeling over in a gale. The public entrance from Bourke Street was up half-a-dozen creaking steps; and the further ascent to the “dress circle” and a circular row of small pens known as upper boxes or gallery, was by a ladder-like staircase of a very unstable description. Internally it was lighted by tin sconces, nailed at intervals to the boarding filled with guttering candles, flickering with a dim and sickly glare. A swing lamp and wax tapers were afterwards substituted, and the immunity of the place from fire is a marvel. It was never thoroughly water-proof, and, after it was opened for public purposes, in wet weather the audience would be treated to a shower bath. Umbrellas were not then the common personal accompaniment they are now in Melbourne, but such playgoers as could sport a convenience of the kind took it to the theatre, where it was often found to be as necessary within as without. The expanded gingham would of course, very seriously incommode the comfort and view of the adjacent sittings, but that was a consideration so trifling as to be scarcely thought about. (Garryowen ‘Chronicles of Early Melbourne’ p. 452)
I know that we often complain about people with their mobile phones in the theatre, but there are worse things:
… the Pavilion would at times be turned into a smoking saloon, and even when some of the more mannerly persons in the pit would take off their hats and place them on the floor, the bell-topper, cabbage-tree, or pull-over, whichever it was, would be utilized as a spittoon for shots expectorated with sure aim from the dress circle. If any of the unhatted individuals happened to present a bald pate, the spot was regarded as a justifiable target for hitting at short range, and terrible would be the indignation with which an unoffending spectator, somewhat sparse in hair, would find himself patted on the bald crown-piece with something analogous to a molluscous substance “shelled” at him from one of the side boxes. In hot weather or cold the moist application was an unpleasant sensation, and naturally resented. The person so “potted” would pull out his handkerchief, wipe his head, jump up, and “rush the batter” whence he would be probably repelled with a black eye or enlarged nose. (Garryowen, p. 456)
So, are we ready and all frocked up for our night at the theatre? Let’s see … umbrella, hat, handkerchief….I’ll settle for the shawl or jacket thank you.