The Illsley-Matson duo is one I know well. Having been previously directed by them on two occasions, I walked into the Barron theatre with high hopes. Did the production live up to my expectations ? Sadly, not quite. Although the acting was overall very strong, a great many practical realities detracted the audience from focusing on the thematics and the scenic action. I’ll elaborate.
A Life in Theatre explores the interaction between a thespian starting his stage career (Andrew Illsley) and his older mentor, who has ‘spent [his] whole life in the theatre’ (Cole Matson), as well as their relationship with the stage. As time goes by and the younger of the two gains experience, he starts to emancipate himself from and clash with the seasoned actor. More importantly the play, by setting its characters on their own stage, expands on the ideas of performance—metatheatre—and provides us with insights on what it means to be an actawr. Sorry, actor.
In terms of staging, the production was both intelligent and insightful. The actors sat at their make-up table before an imaginary mirror in front of the audience; behind them was a ‘second stage’; the stage they walked on when their characters were acting themselves. Not quite Inception, but an interesting array of layers clearly delineated by the setting.
The strongest aspect of the performance was, I believe, the acting itself. The chemistry between the actors was pleasantly felt throughout. But let us examine both actors individually. Illsley’s rendition of the confused debutant—is interpretation of the role—was relevant. Illsley did at times rely on what he already knew: acting idiosyncrasies that I’ve seen him do many times before. This, I wish to stress, is one of the hardest things to get rid of in acting. I do it, and so do 99.9% of the St Andrews thespians I have seen on stage. Overall his performance was full of presence, and due attention was paid to the emotional development of his character. Considering that the play consists in a series of fairly to very short scenes, this was a noticeable achievement. Matson, although having begun in a somewhat stilted manner, went on to embody his older fellow with perceptible ease, subtly, never overdoing it, and with the most precise rhythm and volume control I have observed on a Mermaids stage. He delivered a wonderfully real performance (he is a professional actor, and it shows). My only regret is his lack of intensity in certain scenes, which I deemed necessary.
What, then, went wrong? I suppose pacing will always be an issue when staging this play with full costume changes. Still, imposing transitions that sometimes reached the same length as the scenes themselves drastically impaired the flow of the piece. Dominic Kimberlin, as stage manager (in real life and in the play), did a fine job at entertaining the audience while the other two were jumping into myriad costumes backstage, and added an interesting melancholy air to the production. This, however, wasn’t quite enough to preserve the relevance and impact of the piece as a whole. Cutting some costume changes may have helped—I for one would have enjoyed the Brechtian feel of seeing them both don and doff clothes on stage—and I believe that Kimberlin’s character could have been used in a more engaging way so as to link the scenes together.
I would like to stress something that says much about the skills of all three actors involved: they opened in front of about eight people. Three of them were reviewing and the actors knew it. Acting in front of a crowd is stressful; doing it in front of what seems like a dress rehearsal audience is even more daunting. I won’t go over the ‘where were you?’ questions, aptly but by a Stand reviewer. I’ll just say this: they made a very reduced audience engage with what they had to communicate. More prosaically perhaps, they got laughs, a tricky thing to do without the typical gregarious instinct of larger crowds. (I usually smile about twice per hour of comedy; I think I made an amused sound or two that night).
And the 42 or so empty seats missed out. Illsley’s and Matson’s Life in Theatre suffered from practical deficiencies (the transitions issue being the greatest), but the quality of the acting made it worth the while. On the whole they put on a stimulating production and developed thematics that should be reflected upon further: theatre is not only about ‘Juliet is the sun’ and the curtain call and the boozy after-party.
Peter von Zahnd
Photo credits go to A Life in Theatre, Mermaids