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Tag Archive | "Tolstoy"

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Exit Stage Left: The message in a work of theatre or film

Posted on 05 September 2011 by Tristan Pate

Like most people, there are giant gaps in my film and theatre knowledge, and during this long and geographically far ranging tour, I have really enjoyed discussing and sharing films with my fellow cast members.

When you spend the majority of your time together reproducing the same work on stage, it is refreshing to watch something challenging which provokes discussions about acting and directing, but, more interestingly, life itself.

It is often indicative of actors that they always want to rationalise and understand a drama and all of the processes behind it. Both in a rehearsal scenario or just in the company of friends on a sofa with a DVD, we can’t help discussing what we thought “the message” of the piece was, the intentions of the playwright or film maker, the crux of the drama, or the morals we are supposed to take from it.

It strikes me that this isn’t always a clear distinction to make, and often not predictably in line with the quality of the film; in fact, the best films and plays often seem so broad it is hard to pin them down to one particular theme or agenda.

Now I may often wax lyrical about Russian dramatists in this column, but one thing I think great authors such as Tolstoy do brilliantly is to provide their audience with a hugely detailed cross-section of the lives of their characters, complete with all their contradictions, their flaws and virtues, their changing attitudes and opinions. A truly great piece of drama is often one which seeemingly has no obvious agenda, no single issue which is repeatedly hammered home for 90 minutes, but relates to its audience in a subtler, more impartial way, letting the viewer in slowly and allowing them to have their own responses.

Citing Tolstoy as an example purely through my experience of interpreting his work, I believe the truth in the drama comes from its scope and vision, the beautifully and intricately constructed worlds giving the feeling we are seeing merely a moment in the lives of the protagonists in a continuing narrative, which both begins many years before and continues indefinitely after the time frame we are spectators to. It lives and breathes beyond the page or performance because it is invested so thoroughly with honesty and truth.

Simillarly, you try pinning anything in Shakespeare’s canon down to a prominent theme – you can’t do it. He writes of life and death, love and loss, the human condition in all of its complex nuances, and still finds room for a smattering of cock jokes too. I suppose this is why so many people are adamant that one man cannot have written all of his plays – how can it be possible that one man can know the human heart so well?

But this is a discussion for another day. I recently shared a film with some friends which I had found very difficult to watch, Blue Valentine, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

The film charts the relationship of a couple both in the present day as they struggle to rekindle an unsalvagable marriage they have each given everything to, and many years in the past as they meet and their passion and love for each other conquer an equally difficult set of circumstances at the genesis of their relationship. It is a painful and uncomfortable watch, deeply moving and upsetting, but with two incredible central performances which capture perfectly this impartial, truthful level of storytelling. As actors Gosling and Williams invest hugely in their roles and with each other; it is impossible not to believe their relationship at all stages of its decline, and not to despair at the miscommunication at the heart of their separation.

What the film does brilliantly though is confound its audience into trying to extrapolate a clear message. Is it to warn us off giving ourselves completely to someone? Or to be determined to love, and love entirely in spite of all the heartache? Perhaps it is to know that sometimes a situation can be completely out of our control, that the urge to always want to fix a situation without fully understanding it can be damaging and insensitive.

It doesn’t exactly end on a life affirming tone, there is no romantic payoff. Much like War and Peace or Anna Karenina, we see a chunk of story, a section in the lives of two very carefully drawn characters which doesn’t tie up its loose ends satisfactorily, much like life.

Human beings are wonderfully flawed. We all make mistakes, and we don’t always learn from them. Sometimes, especially in relationships we continue to make the same ones again and again and again. We can surprise ourselves with our own hypocrisy, we can be all things to all people, or we can be nothing to anybody. Sometimes the only real message we can take from these collection of experiences is that we just need to keep going as best we can, trying to be the best person we can in each individual moment. And I suppose there’s maybe half a message in that.

Tristan Pate

Tristan Pate

Tristan is an actor and musician and graduated from the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010. Since then he has appeared in plays, musicals and physical theatre pieces both touring nationally, and in London. He lives in Oxfordshire with his fiancée and young daughter.

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