As London unfurls from six months of semi-enforced hibernation, there’s a thrill to moving through public space again; to being a player on that grandest of stages. Fresh eyes lend new primacy to the city’s million micro-dramas — rehearsed or otherwise — unfolding at any given time.
If this were play’d upon a stage now, I would condemn it as improbable fiction
In the course of a normal day, how many people do you pass? How many do you share space with, in cafes and offices and bars and parks and pools and post offices? And do you care?
It goes back to that obligatory adolescent epiphany: emerge from a sea of agonising narcissism, only to realise that other people have feelings too. The First Great Reckoning – maybe prompted by a fight with your mum, or a formative romantic fixation – comes and dwindles, flicks on and off. It’s easy to forget that every person in the world is on their own little path, wherein they occupy a starring role (for friends and family, that makes you a B-lister; for most people, an extra at best).
People Watching 2.0
With that in mind, here comes a girl. There are plenty of passers-by – we’re in the middle of London, after all – but bear with me and zero in on her. Twenty-something. Walking like she’s got somewhere to be. Notice tightness in the shoulders; an air of distraction… and is she humming? I wonder what she’s thinking. Oh, wait: I can hear her thoughts.
c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t engineers an intimate drama, using the city itself as its stage. Debuted in Paris this summer, the production has been translated across language and landscape to London with performances running at various locations until October. Keen to watch this theatrical exercise unfold, I’ve taken the tube (imagine!) on a hot September evening. I’ve gathered at a pre-arranged meeting point with other audience members, downloaded an app, and adjusted my earbuds. Now that I’ve spotted our protagonist Sarah, I’m ready to follow wherever her story might lead.
All the world’s a stage
With both soundtrack and script delivered through headphones, neither actor (c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t is a two-person show) speaks; as such, there’s a pleasing ambiguity between internal monologues (later, dialogues) and words lip-synched ‘out loud’. Meanwhile, sounds of the city leak in; commuters yammering on their phones, pub-bound office workers laughing, couples on public benches chatting over an impromptu picnic, all filtering in at the edge of consciousness. Traffic, helicopters, sirens, enrich c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t by disrupting it. Scene set, then, we begin with the shortest of distances and the widest of lenses at once: out in the world, and inside Sarah’s head.
Call it an exercise in basic subjectivity. Call it a thought experiment. Call it therapy, or call it really smart theatre – in any case, c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t’s most powerful work happens as you walk into the city like a film set, on the trail of this intriguing stranger and aware of being one yourself. Hard not to think of Shakespeare’s musing that All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players. As he says, They have their exits and their entrances; / and one man in his time plays many parts.
Alpha and Omega
Skipping and sliding through thoughts, Sarah’s monologue has all the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of ‘real’ streams of consciousness: When did she say she’d send that thing? Before noon, right? My neck hurts. Why did I wear this bra? We don’t think in straight lines, and to-do lists are interrupted by snatches of ear-worm songs or cues from the body (stubbed toe, headache. For Sarah, it’s a ‘dripping solar plexus’.) Her mind is going a mile a minute – do birds think we’re stupid for not being able to fly? And what is that lyric? – when she takes a break on a bench.
Time to quiet the internal chatter and focus. Count to four, breathing in …. And out. Tighten the leash on that wandering mind and concentrate. Feel the body, bum on bench, key fob in hand and hand in pocket. 1, 2, 3 – and one of our audience circle breaks ranks. He walks fast, long strides covering the few metres to sit beside Sarah in seconds; any remnant of distinction between us-and-them, performer-and-viewer, is shattered.
Us and Them
As their interaction picks up pace, it becomes clear that the headphones he’s still wearing let the interloper hear Sarah’s thoughts; quite an imposition, which understandably freaks her out at first. Much of c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t’s smartness lies in the medium’s implicit alignment of observed and observer. With a plot unfurling around one character being able to occupy the other’s head, it’s impossible to forget that we’re doing just that – granted superpowers for the evening, the audience is inextricably implicated in the unfolding drama.
Sarah and her stranger (named Raphael, it emerges) move through the city, and so do we. The script acknowledges hustle and bustle as we experience it, calling attention to the feel of the breeze on sun-drenched skin; the singing of birds. To things we can sense, rather than just imagine. Several times, pedestrians walk right through the play. At one point, a group of boys on bikes ride across the walkway between our actors, laughing and spitting – and, quite apart from disrupting proceedings, you’re left with the feeling that the best stage manager in the world couldn’t have choreographed such natural scene-setting.
Four Walls Near London Bridge
But where does that scene end? Modernism shored up theatre’s Fourth Wall, teaching us to expect total division between a fantasy on stage and anything beyond it; today, c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t brings the world beyond itself into its own fantasy. We’d be doing history a disservice, though, to imagine that blurring of categories as entirely novel: turn to Shakespeare again, and Modernism’s ‘wall’ was more like a hastily assembled screen full of holes.
Think of Twelfth Night’s If this were play’d upon a stage now, I would condemn it as improbable fiction, or Julius Caesar seeming to predict his own story’s adaptation with the quip How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown! What’s more, everyone from Iago to Puck spoke to their audiences: directly, in epilogues like Gentles, do not reprehend: / if you pardon, we will mend, or implicitly through asides and monologues (soliloquies – only ‘heard’ by the audience – were always pushing it, weren’t they).
But just because Shakespeare was playing with it, doesn’t mean he invented it. He’s indebted in turn to the ancient Greeks, who didn’t only give us the categories of tragedy, comedy, et al — they handed over conventions of the ‘chorus’. Commenting on the play as it happens, those are roles which would sit uncomfortably either on stage or in the stalls (at least by modern standards). Actor or audience? While the chorus has long since fallen out of fashion, c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t’s form poses similar questions. Implicating you in its story, the play’s limits seem to melt away (if they were ever established in the first place, that is.)
Over 50 minutes, Sarah’s subconscious opens before our eyes and ears; and, if the great unwashed on the Globe’s wooden seats could be addressed conspiratorially by legendary emperors or english kings, the reverse ought to hold true too. Human drama spans class and context, and Sarahs are easy to find once one starts looking; more a question of angle than anything else. How about that woman on the other side of the square who keeps looking at her phone – a lofty scene? Or the guy with all the shopping bags – improbable fiction? What about you?
London seems as useful a starting point as any to begin a c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t experiment, so it’s where I’ll conduct mine; feel free to copy-paste to anywhere in the world, as long as it contains a stranger. While Sarah and Raphael’s drama is an inward facing one, its themes are on a grand scale (life, death, the universe); such scope is desirable, but not essential, for the following exercise. Certainly, don’t force it. Sit yourself down, select a case study (lab rat) and push your way inside.
I’ll start – pink t-shirt, ten o’clock.
Falling into it! That’s like what he said on FaceTime. Is my right eye worse, then? That’s the kind of ping that makes you want to fly, and just the thing – who do you think you are? Oh, darling. You mustn’t worry, but of course I do. Fastness, fastening, flourishing, flailing, so into that right now. Tesco’s must still be open, full-fat-blue-top, and green for baby.
Your Mileage May Vary
Fun, right? There’s no guessing what you’ll find, jumping into someone’s head. If you’re lucky, you might plunge into some real melodrama. See him, crossing the road up ahead:
Keeping it, imagine keeping it, is what I said. After everything that happened with Ian! Who the fuck does he think he is? How’m I s’posed to pick that stuff up? She’d better not, better not try, I swear to god. And ‘how can I make it up to you’ is a stupid fucking question, I’m not going to be here when she gets back, no siree, she’ll call and I won’t pick up.
Forget soliloquies – pour thoughts straight into my ears. Scrap staging – move through the set itself. ‘Audience’? Too distant, let me follow you. Sarah and Raphael slip in and out of each other’s minds in a way which seems more and more enviable as the production continues – but that kind of proximity can be painful.
As c-Ω-n-t-α-c-t draws to a close, Sarah throws her arms open. She wants contact, she wants to be held, she wants to be safe: nothing safer or more terrifying than having nothing to hide, and the true thrill of the city is its anonymity. No one knows you, safe as houses.