By David McShane
You might have noticed it. It’s next to the National Theatre. It’s called The Shed.
The National Theatre looks like what I imagine a ‘theatre’ to look like: The Shed, not so much. It looks like, well… a shed. The theatrical equivalent of the kind you find hidden in the grounds of an old manor house. The gardener lives there, Lady Chatterley-style. And, sometimes, that is just what we need. A spot of that Lady Chatterley uproar. An illicit love affair. A recognition that it is, in fact, the gardeners doing the ground work to create the manorial majesty.
Sea Wall is an example of how theatrical rawness can arise from the most simple of set-ups: one actor, one light and one period of uninterrupted focus from the audience.
The piece was conceived by Simon Stevens, in a matter of days, for the Bush Theatre in a naturally lit space (when the building was under repair). Its sole character is played by Andrew Scott, for whom it was written. On stage as the piece opens and with barely a light change, Scott plunges us into a sea-blue haze of humour and grief. He manages to evoke, in 30 minutes, the palpable absence his character must face following a disaster on the coast of France.
The intimacy of The Shed and Sea Wall’s form found powerful resonance. The monologue is shaped into distinct pockets of experience – we hear about France and π, Ground Force and Family. The movement from topic to topic never seemed strained. Each pocket counterpointed and rolled into and from one another seamlessly.
So the audience was silent. Apart from when we were laughing, or finding a moment to breath in one of those negative-sound quiets where the noise of a pin dropping would seem inappropriate. And no Capital “T” Theatre goers with that expensive front-row yawn or furry thing clambering up their coat. This was possibly a result of the £12 tickets, paired with the uncertain nature of the space. It asked for an audience who wanted to go, not one who felt they ought to be there.
The space, this big red and wooden temporary thing, seemed to echo Sea Wall’s focus on impermanence and mortality. Moving out and into the South Bank’s lightly worn summer darkness, The Shed’s bright conspicuousness by day faded into a cheeky silhouette of potential impropriety. It reflected, with perhaps the more positive tint of change and evolution, this: that theatre should flare up – in a half-constructed building, in a shed – and then die over and over in a myriad of forms. Theatre is able to stay relevant to this moment of life and this one and this one in a way few art forms can.
The standing ovation said it all. That we’d been aware of nothing but what we’d just seen. It was about those moments we all contributed towards. The weighty, sun-shot, deep-sea silence; the pause of devastating recognition that moments of joy just pass on by, whilst those deemed the worst linger. I loved it, for it showed what theatre can be when the theatre is truly alive.
For what’s on at The Shed, check out theshed.nationaltheatre.org.uk/