A Play Within A Play (Within A Play)
of our party, the International Civil Servant, who is generally
queasy about modern cultural experiments anyway, was skeptical
from the first. As we entered the magnificent ISD (International
School of Dhaka) auditorium, he lobbied furiously that we should
sit close to the exits in case a strategic retreat became necessary.
The rest of us, shepherded by yours truly, were quietly confident
that so renowned a playwright as Alan Ayckbourn (not that any
of us had more than a vague idea of the dramatic work for which
he had earned the aforesaid renown) combined with the talents
of the always capable Dhaka Stage company, made for a formula
guaranteed to serve up a stylish comedy. This feeling was reinforced
when I noticed in the programme that the playwright had actually
been knighted, presumably by a monarch grateful for many a successful
evening in his care.
curtain was raised however, and despite a sprightly opening
scene, the play took on little by little, and really by excruciatingly
small degrees, such a deathly torpor that it could never be
shaken off to the end. The plot revolved around as standard
a cliché as has ever been proposed: the trials and tribulations
of an amateur dramatic company putting on a performance (in
this case, The Beggar's Opera by John Gay), a classic play-within-a-play
setup, but this time with all the potential ironies eliminated
with suspicious thoroughness. Attempts at comedy were dire and,
truth to tell, hardly ever attempted. On the contrary all we
got were increasingly tedious slice of life representations,
with occasional melodramatic stage business thrown in. All dialogue
conventions seemed to have been overturned and, far from "heightened
speech", took the form of relentlessly ordinary conversation,
most memorably in the scene in which Guy Jones is asked to tea
at the Director's house and the exchanges stay stuck for long
periods at the precise level of "Please pass the sugar."
"Here you are" "Thanks"
was clear that we were in the icy grip of a fully fledged Anti-play.
Not having encountered such a creature before, I discovered,
along with a whole room full of more or less horrified beholders,
that this apparently meant a play in which there was no actual
development of character or idea, no change of pace but only
a steady trundling along. Nor was there an overall shape; far
from there being a conventional arc of a story-line, even the
occasional whiffs of Beckett-ian absurdity were quickly snuffed
out. A completely unrelated sub-plot, involving the possible
sale of a plot of land, meandered in and out through the play's
main action before petering out without any resolution. Much
as in real life you will say, but that is not what one usually
goes to the theatre for.
the real drama was taking place in the front row of the theatre
where we had with foolhardy daring plumped ourselves, all six
of us. The whispering had started early and as scene after scene
went down like a series of lead balloons my group showed signs
of growing merriment, directed, as I was only too aware, at
me. I, of course, pretended I wasn't there and carefully avoided
catching the eye of our ICS friend who for his part made every
attempt so to do, all the better to convey its triumphant gleam.
As we wearily made it to the interval all hell broke loose and
we compared notes in a daze. Our unanimous opinion was that
we were steaming towards a titanic disaster, or perhaps had
already hit the iceberg and it was all over bar the collective
drowning. An urgent discussion broke out about whether we would
survive another hour and a half of this tedium (it having been
helpfully specified in an announcement at the beginning that
the interval would be exactly halfway through the performance).
we stayed on till the end largely out of respect for the work
of the Dhaka Stage company, because the glaring paradox in all
this was that the performance itself was truly top-rate. Much
fine energetic acting, with Sally Elliott and Kip Watkins in
particular, fully inhabiting their parts. Deft direction of
a large cast, and a technically complex production involving
numerous scene changes, music, dancing, not to mention elaborate
costumes and props. Yet another convention seemed to have been
overturned. Whereas the usual joke in these situations is that
an amateur dramatic company cheerfully mangles a classic play
(as indeed the Pendon Society is shown doing with the Beggar's
Opera) in this case Alan Ayckbourn sees to it that an extremely
demanding performance is wasted on his very slight text.
By the end
it was clear that most of the audience was also caught up in
the spirit of silent rebellion. One gentleman behind us started
some loud mock-snoring. The laughs one heard occasionally were
clearly forced. Applause was perfunctory and there was no hint
of a curtain call despite the technical merits of the performance.
out of the premises with relief and went on to a restaurant
for the après-theatre but for the rest of the evening
the talk was almost exclusively about the depressing experience
we had just been through. Every defect of the play was analysed,
among them its interminable length, its flatness, its emptiness.
Torrents of genial abuse were poured on the head of the playwright
with many a devout wish that he be stripped of his knighthood.
The ICS person made it very clear that he would be collecting
from me for some considerable time to come. Again and again
the topic came up of the curious disconnect between the excellence
of the performance by Dhaka Stage and the embarrassing weakness
of the ultimate output. This then perhaps explains why we parted
agreeing to file the episode under the title of "Musical
up to my flat mulling over the events of the evening and trying
to pinpoint the source of the nagging sense that I was missing
something. I had just put my key in the lock when it hit me.
No, the most perfect, most precise title (otherwise inexplicable),
which summarized the experience of the evening, could only be
"A Chorus of Disapproval" !
I began working out the implications. There had been a play
within a play (within a play). We had all been actors in Alan
Ayckbourn's greater play, jerked around like puppets on a string,
the smug ICS person perhaps most of all, an exactly imagined
stock character. The playwright had been the Emperor and I felt
at this moment like the boy who saw though his no-clothes trick.
of the trick now fell into place: the sheer length of the piece,
carefully advertised in advance so as to induce a sinking feeling
in the stomach, the frequent hints that the auditorium's seating
area was also part of the performance space, and above all the
expertly controlled dullness of the drama. All designed, as
in a reverse art-form, to evoke just the reaction of outrage
and dissatisfaction that we had so amply displayed. I was stunned
at the level of deep manipulation that had been pulled off.
How well the playwright had known us, how well he had penetrated
our defenses at the very moment when we felt ourselves most
invulnerable, turned us inside out when we were at our most
Services to Post-modern Practical Jokes on a Grand Scale: Rise
Again Sir Alan.