You know something I love about foyer talk? I love finding one of a rare and elusive Theatre Virgin; someone who has just witnessed their first ever live show. Perhaps a girlfriend, husband or child dragged them through the doors of the venue and now they have found themselves well and truly OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE. Every one of those capital letters has been earned. Not only did they see the show but now they are caught in a de-briefing, dissecting, dissertation dialogue and they are riddled with self-doubt.
It is beautiful. You can watch them transform in a matter of minutes. They start out so self-deprecating. They are the silent ones, bound to the conversation by the person who brought them there but you can see flight in their eyes. Were this tie severed they would float away into the night and probably never speak of their experience again. When asked what they thought, they make eloquent hand gestures to symbolise their linguistic poverty: “Sorry, I don’t even know what I just saw. That’s Emma’s area, not mine. I work in….” and they name a career as if it were a distant planet. They are the Tall Grey in the foyer and we all nod with sympathy and do not press it because we can see the sweat already forming and because we know the feeling. Secretly, we know it well.
Then there is That Moment. It usually comes between minutes ten and twenty, when something clicks and this person suddenly finds their voice. They switch from denying the validity of their own thought to holding their own in the dialogue. Suddenly they are defending their own personal Meaning Making, their interpretation of the design, the ways in which they felt isolated from or included in the world of the play. Sure, they check in with us: “Could it mean this?” and we tell them that it could mean this and it could also mean that and with each sentence they grow in confidence. You see, in the end, you do not need an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre to make your own sense of theatre. Yes, art is in dialogue with itself but, more crucially, it is in dialogue with life. The more you have lived, the more you will recognise in the work.
I love this transformation because I feel it in myself every day. The transition from voiceless panic is not limited to theatre virgins. It is just more notable because the rest of us tend to keep it to ourselves but houselights almost always find me in a moment of ‘what the fuck can I say about that? I know I loved it but please god let no one ask me why for at least twenty-four hours.’ Sometimes I’ve had to say to friends in the foyer “congratulations but I don’t know what I think yet.” And I know I am not alone in this regard: I’ve seen many of Melbourne’s most prolific reviewers standing at the bar asking each other “what are you going to write about that? Shit.”
I am writing this to say that I love leaving the theatre full of sensation and empty of words and that is exactly how I left The Rabble’s Room of Regret last night. I was beaming. I was literally bouncing on my toes but the best I could muster by way of words was to dissect the behavior of another audience member who had chattered away throughout the entire show. By the time we reached The Esplanade we had analysed her actions, assigned motivation to every bumbled gesture and dramaturged the shit out of the final exchange of the night. (“It’s going dark. I wonder if it is going to go blank.” “Shut up!”) But don’t let this trick you into thinking that the show was upstaged by this ridiculous, doddery soul. It wasn’t. We were just skirting around the issue, as nervous as Theatre Virgins to put words to these quivering sensations inside our chests and between our ears.
I love that. After years snatching up every ticket I get my hands on, theatre can still leave me inarticulate. It is has the ability to make me feel (I apologise in advance) like a virgin.
I do not think for an instant that this is an unintentional side-effect. As an audience, The Rabble divide and disorientate us: draped in veils, we are taken in groups into a labyrinth. We will never see all of the action (except of course for Doddery Chatterbox who wandered as she pleased, talking the entire time) and we are not meant to. The title is Room of Regret, not Rooms despite our acute awareness of the multiple spaces. In a strange way the name came to represent for me not only the characters’ entrapment in their destructive narcissism or the room that houses the cursed picture of Dorian Gray but also the personalised experience of the audience: that perhaps we will always regret the unseen parts of the night.
This was personal. No two audience members shared the same experience and the performers pressed themselves up against you through the glass or twirled with you across a blanket of golden leaves. Once I found myself shut in a tiny room alone with Dorian as he slowly removed his jacket. We held each other’s gaze through a lace veil and then he was gone again and a door opened and I was lead into another room and I felt such pity for him in the whirlwind of sickening beauty. The collective power of these many images layered was so disorientating that my laughter had a touch of hysteria to it and my relief upon discovering that I had been re-seated beside a friend was over-whelming.
You see? I still have more emotion than sense to add to this experience. Perhaps I will stop trying. No doubt I will have a revelation some time next week and berate myself for this response but this was a piece more experiential than theatrical and thus objective analysis is rather reductive.
What is Room of Regret about? It is about being there. It is about the hands of the guides finding yours in the darkness. It is about a scene half glimpsed through a doorway. It is about words repeated again and again, drawing nearer with each repetition. It is about shimmering bodies giving way to the smell of dirt and the sound of struggling breath. It is about the overwhelming closeness of those beautiful, doomed people. It is about creating an individual memory for each member of the audience and what a gorgeous, fucked up, intangible memory it is.