Monday, February 13, 2006


On Friday night I took a carload of friends down to Rockingham, one of Perth's numerous outer suburban armpits, to see a play being put on by a local amateur theatre company.

I know what you're thinking; this is where Blandwagon commences choking on his own snark, in the manner of Mama Cass with a ham sandwich. Amateur theatre! Argh! The Trabant of the acting community!

Actually, the play was very good. It was 'The Woman in Black', a ghost story set at the turn of the century, and almost entirely played out by two actors. Like a lot of these sorts of tales, it relied chiefly on chills rather than thrills, evoking the feeling of dread that comes when a man is alone in an ancient, solitary house on a dark night, and he become aware that there is something else there as well.

The actors were both great. The set design was imaginative, especially when it used a gauzy curtain to create both an impression of a misty graveyard, and to distance the hero from the audience when he was most in peril, making him appear even more vulnerable. The lighting and sound effects were very effectively used to make up for the inadequacies of the props (two metal chairs, a metal footlocker and a wooden crate, all painted matt black).

And yet, even as I became engrossed in the fine perfromances and the spooky story, irritation simmered just below my surface calm. At the end I felt like jumping up on the stage and shouting my wrath at all concerned. Not because of anything the company had done, but because I had come into contact once again with Elderly Rubes at the Theatre.

The majority of the audience was aged somewhere between fifty five and eighty. Even under the best of circumstances this is never good, as they tend to cough and sneeze and snort and hack as clapped-out immune systems struggle with the transition from summer evening to refrigerated air conditioning. But at least that settles down after half an hour or so.

The real problem comes from a mindset that I have encountered in amatuer theatre audiences before, but still can't for the life of me comprehend. It's the idea of laughing to relieve tension.

The hero is stumbling about the dark rooms of the mansion, unnerved by strange sounds that seem to come out of nowhere. He turns to open a door, then cries out and stumbles back as a dark shape steps out of the shadows so close that it's almost touching him. The audience jerks back in their seats too... then they let out a little girlish titter. Ooh, dear me, that was a bit of a surprise. Isn't that clever? Hee hee hee, I must have looked like a silly old goose! Ha ha ha!


And it's not just in moments of sudden surprise. It also happened when the characters became hysterical, or staggered half out-of-control down a flight of stairs, or even raised their voices to express their fear. The worst offender was a woman sitting two seats away from me. She tittered at anything more dramatic than an explanatory monologue, and her husband, sitting next to me, obviously felt duty bound to give a little chuckle about a second later.

I have no idea why they do it. Yes, laughing relieves tension, but the tension is part of the pleasure of the piece. Can your pacemakers not cope with slightly elevated heartrates? If so, THEN DON'T SEE A PLAY ABOUT GHOSTS, YOU WORTHLESS SACKS OF PRESCRIPTION MEDICATION!

At least the other danger of Elderly Rubes at the Theatre, the high-decibel whispering of the deeply deaf, was only attempted by one old man, who happened to be sitting in front of me. Fortunately his wife appeared to have died during the previous scene so he gave up after only two attempts.


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