Sophie says: Does theatre have the same effect if we know somebody in the production?

Sophie Huskisson 10 November 2018
Credit: Felix Mooneram

As we all know, Cambridge is renowned for its theatre scene. I often find myself going to the theatre to support friends who are part of a production. It has become an increasingly poignant question to me whether we can watch a show in the same way when one of our friends, or a familiar face from another production, is performing in it.

This contemplation arose in Easter term last year. I watched one of my friends perform what was an incredibly emotional monologue, but because the content of it was so far from anything my friend would say, it was received with amusement rather than with sincerity. We all know that a show’s meaning, as with any written piece, is constantly changing when it comes to an audience’s interpretation of it. But I worry that our closeness to performers in a show can sometimes modify a playwright’s intentions too much.

Let’s take a random example. Shakespeare’s Malvolio is humiliated at the end of Twelfth Night, when he enters the stage in yellow stockings. Either this scene becomes even more hilarious if our friend is playing Malvolio, or on the other hand it becomes even more jarring, as we feel more inclined to sympathise with his embarrassment. There are too alterations when it comes to a tragic role. If a friend is playing Juliet, her death could be even more devastating to watch. In this case, we might be more emotionally attached to her than Romeo; our interpretation of the play is therefore biased. These examples are highly generalised, but nonetheless I still wonder whether we can really detach ourselves from the pre-existing relationships we have with someone when they are performing a role on stage.

The common belief is that if an actor is acting well enough, we should forget that they are acting at all, and thereafter forget their identity as an actor. I have seen many of my friends acting extremely well, to the extent that I do believe their portrayal of a character to be real. But I think it is truly incorrect to say that I am not even subconsciously influenced by our relationship as friends. Perhaps this isn’t always a bad thing though. The result is a reception which might not always align with the playwright or the director’s intention accurately, but does create a different kind of intimacy with the characters and the play.

Overall, I think we need to be aware of how we can be influenced by knowing someone in a production. It is not always a negative thing. But it is important, and also interesting, to consider how we might be looking at our friend’s character, and their relationships with other characters, when we are watching through a biased gaze. Although we might not be able to shake off these influences, we can certainly recognise them and at least consider how the show’s meaning might have changed with our friend in it. We might have watched a slightly different to show to what it was intended to be.