Two Kinds of Magic

Zarkana

a show by Cirque du Soleil, written and directed by François Girard
Radio City Music Hall, New York City, June 30–October 8, 2011

A Magic Flute

directed by Peter Brook
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York City, July 6–17, 2011
fenton_1-081811.jpg
Richard Termine
A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, with digital snakes shown on an LED wall

Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between the desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambi- tion to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the actors are never obliged to raise their voices to suit the acoustics of the space, because nothing is going to be missed. Working through improvisation, perhaps, or through other revered techniques of self-discovery, the performers arrive at dangerous levels of intensity and verisimilitude.

When the result succeeds, it is a tantalizing triumph for actor, director, and audience alike, since the piece can only ever be seen by a few hundred people at a time (or fewer). But commitment to the idiom gives its own profound satisfactions. One might say: “This, and only this, is the kind of work I really want to do. This is my zone of integrity. This is my place for the genuine.”

At the other end of the scale we find the beckoning impresarios, looking to fill great hangars and arenas with a mass audience for whom the distinctive part of the experience is that very participation of the mob—“the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.” Here everything depends on a military standard of drill. Even the striking of the set (as I learned at Salzburg’s great festival theater) is a precision performance in which the stagehands have been carefully rehearsed and in which there is no room for the slightest improvisation. Most theater repeats itself in some way, but these vast productions are contraptions designed to leave nothing to chance. The things they achieve can only be achieved in front of an audience of thousands. Sometimes whole theaters are built just to contain them.

A suitable presiding spirit, for such venues, might be that of one of modern drama’s founders, Edward Gordon Craig, who in 1904 spoke of the necessity of the most exacting discipline. Each actor, he said, must follow precisely the movements prescribed for him by the director

to a third of an inch. Then it is possible to get a sort of amusing design into the play, all sorts of nice lines. But what is the good of designing scenery and trying to get some expression into it, if the actors go moving about in it just as they like?*

To the friends of the Intimate Theater, this may well sound like heresy, or like a reversed set of priorities. But the example of a classical stage fight illustrates Craig’s point. Hamlet and Laertes must follow their prescribed movements to the third of an inch—nobody wants either of them to have some bright, improvisatory idea some night.

On the one hand, then, we have the theatrical crucible, Peter Brook’s Empty …

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  1. *

    See Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880–1918, edited and translated by Laird M. Easton (to be published by Knopf in November), p. 318.