Regular readers of this blog know that we love Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. Designed by the Victorian architect Frank Matcham, the Everyman has been at the centre of the town’s cultural life since 1891. Each autumn, we take our new students to the Everyman for a guided tour behind the scenes, and it remains a very special place for all students of English Literature at the University.
Last week, the Everyman hosted a performance of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in a new production by the celebrated Hull Truck Theatre company. Now with a permanent base in Hull, this touring company lived on the road for many years, travelling around Britian’s small theatres. Its founding director John Godber gave up teaching for a peripatetic life in theatre, writing and producing many of Hull Truck’s plays as well as developing an extended repertoire of new, modern and classic plays.
The Everyman, Hull Truck, and Delaney: I wasn’t going to miss the chance to experience three great names in British theatre. I was also curious to see how the play would be performed. The Everyman’s proscenium arch was designed for a particular type of nineteenth-century theatrical experience. John Barnes notes that to modernist writers ‘the proscenium appeared conservative and restrictive, encouraging a private response in each spectator rather than a shared audience experience.’* Yet far from separating the audience from the action, the arch invites us to step through the frame while reminding us that art is not life itself, but life represented, mediated, made more intense and universal.
Mark Babych’s excellent new production explores the claustrophobic physical and mental spaces of Delaney’s radical play. A buckled street lamp projects just beyond the edge of the arch, and between scenes the actors (who are also singers and musicians) step forward, stand under the dismal low-watt light to sing or play the washboard or ukelele. A grim iron walkway marks the entrance to the unheated one-room flat where the action takes place, its lattice standing in for the gasworks that the characters (but not the audience) see when they look out of the window. Like the stage set, the songs refer to a world beyond, and drew collective recognition and response from the audience; the actor playing Helen kept breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly.
The best dramatic productions use material and spatial conditions to project a world, and to project us, the audience, into that world. Only our imaginations lay down the limits.
*Reference: The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance, ed. Dennis Kennedy (Oxford: OUP 2010), p. 481.
Images: Shelagh Delaney, early 1960s. Hull Truck Theatre. Decorated safety curtain at Cheltenham’s Everyman theatre.