Casting my mind back to yesterday (Sunday) afternoon at the Old Vic. I’m supposed to be a helper for the public in the ‘Noises Off’ area – a small interactive exhibition which tells stories about how sound technology has developed at the theatre. It’s good fun and deliberately child focused with the opportunity to try and work out the sounds and their order for plays such as ‘The Cherry Orchard’.
I’m supposed to stand here for 4 hours. Really? Besides, the manager isn’t here nor any other volunteers. I entertain myself by trying to familiarise myself with every part of the theatre and the new ‘Heritage Experience’ as well as I can from bottom to top. The best part of this job is that I have a lanyard which gives me access (almost) all areas. I couldn’t get into the dressing rooms even if I was a stalker (OK, I had a look).
There’s something amazing about being alone in the empty silence of the theatre imagining hundreds of dramas and scenes that have unfolded, the various actors and sets that had stood where I stood now. The audiences. The laughter. The tears. The applause. The heckling (there used to be a lot).And the final bows. Over 250 years’ worth of storytelling all from the very I place I stood. In silence. I stand on the stage and wonder at the feeling of performing trying to remember my short lived acting career which included 3 performances (one a 2 man show) between the ages of 9 and 11. I hope desperately to meet the ghost of Sarah M’Cready the manageress of the then Theatre Royal who inherited it from her husband and ran it from 1834 to 1853. She is said to like to hang around in the wings just off stage – forever the manager not the actor. I sit in the gallery at the top looking at the beautiful carved and painted ceiling with small gold guilt cherubs in horseback up in the gods. In the half silence, with just the murmur of the customers at the restaurant through the double doors, I am lost again, taken to another place: alone in the city. I even meditate here. In the upper circle doing my 5 minute breathing routines before going back to see if anyone has come to check out the sounds display (rarely).
I love going into the hidden work spaces buried deep within the theatre. The Clore Learning Studio like a dance studio, yellow lines on the floor and mustard coloured seats in stacks along one wall. 3 pianos, benches and flipboard charts showing people’s ideas for productions. Other detritus that relate to creating ideas are dotted around the space. This is where the Young Company rehearse during the week. I guess it’s the Old Vic Theatre School students. There’s a workshop smell to it – paint, varnish? – which is comforting somehow. It must remind me of somewhere. Last time I was here I walked in and a young guy was flawlessly playing and singing show songs, his back to me, oblivious to my presence. There’s a sense of the industriousness and creative process behind a performance – often guessed at but never seen.
In the basement and quite hard to find is the actual workshop where all the set design happens. Work benches and random props surrounded by large photos of previous productions. There’s one I recognise: a fantastic production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (probably my favourite – along with Hamlet) directed by Tom Morris along with the Hand Spring Theatre Company from South Africa, famous for their giant life like puppets used most famously in ‘War Horse’. The poster is of an actor playing Oberon holding up a huge carved wooden head to depict the Fairy King. I remember some of the other characters had bodies made out of a basic frame 10-12 feet high and they floated around the stage mesmerising the audience including the 30 odd kids I’d taken from Taunton. I have to say I think it was the greatest success I ever had with a theatre trip especially to a Shakespeare play which can often force a few to give up the ghost and start desperately looking for distractions. Again, the feeling that I am witnessing another of the creative strands that help bring a production together.
The impact is heightened everywhere I go by the silence. The reminders of people working hard at something but everywhere devoid of people. It’s the same dramatic effect felt keenly at the end of a school day or even more intensely at the end of a school term when the students file out as they have countless times before, chattering, only concerned with the present (as children do) oblivious to the sense of ending or time passing that I feel always. This is captured beautifully at the end of the 2008 French film ‘Entre Les Murs’ (The Class) after Mr Marin’s difficult, ballsy class have their final lesson and the camera pans around the class of empty seats in real time while playing the sounds of the background noise of the kids at the school. It’s the reminder of what people had been doing in this place in the immediate aftermath emphasised by the stillness of the scene that make it arresting.
Although I seem to be trying to romanticise spending Wintry Sunday afternoons exploring a silent theatre this isn’t really what I was aiming for when I stepped up to be a volunteer. I was hoping it’d be an opportunity to meet some new people and feel part of the Old Vic team but there is no team – not yesterday nor the time before – and there aren’t even many visitors to the exhibition. Perhaps I should do a weekday shift when there’s sure to be more happening.