Wonders of the modern world, number five . . . the sound of no-hand clapping
It was the Sarah Kane play, Blasted, a revival at the Lyric, Hammersmith. I’d not seen it first time round, probably put off by the reviews which described it as needlessly violent and juvenile.
It’s now fifteen years later. Fifteen years. The same gap as between, say, Elvis’s first hit — or Look Back In Anger — and Pink Floyd’s sixth album - or Last Tango In Paris. Or Anarchy In The UK and Madonna’s Blond Ambition.
It’s a great play, I decided. Of course, it’s violent. Then it was the time of the Balkan civil wars - it’s almost a struggle now to recall how staggeringly violent they were and how shocking it was to have something happen quite so close to, well, Primrose Hill.
It is, of course, clearly marked by Beckett and Ionesco and Albee etc, blah blah. But it is also a very funny play. More than that, it’s a comedy of manners, very English, almost traditional. A couple in a hotel room with a man who wants to have sex and a younger woman who doesn’t and the man ends up — inadvertently and amusingly - short of some of his clothing. As my friend Gerry who was with me said, it’s a kind of Brian Rix farce.
I found myself thinking of it as Noel Coward with — if my Nadsat is still with me — a touch of the old ultraviolence. A couple in two different hotel rooms, playing out the not always pleasant realities of romantic entanglement.
Which is why it’s so funny — in this production at least. Tragedy is, of course, my splitting a finger nail. Comedy, though, is a man (a journalist, a tabloid writer, a buffoonish parody of one) who has . . .
* bitten his girlfriend’s vulva till it bleeds
* been buggered - on his hotel bed - with a pistol by an Irish-accented terrorist (who now lies dead beside the bed)
* eaten the leg of a dead baby (having disinterred the infant from its onstage grave)
* had both his eyes removed — for the terrorist’s snack, I think
. . . and who is standing up to his chest in the baby’s now-emptied grave. It’s raining on him through a hole in the roof, too.
See what I mean about farce. As Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest can be seen as an antic inversion of Oedipus Rex, so this play is inside-out Ray Cooney. Comedy played as tragedy.
Anyway, to continue, standing there, buggered and eyeless, having feasted on unroasted baby, in the pissing rain, he opens his mouth, pauses, then says ‘Thank you’. The human comedy. The precision of the line — and its truth.
I was, though, the only one who laughed - as I suspected I might be so I muffled it somewhat.
Anyway, that’s all by the way of preamble to what happened next - to the reason for this piece. What happened next was . . . nothing. Complete quiet in the audience. Complete darkness onstage. Complete quite onstage. And so on. And on and on and on and on. The sound of no-hands clapping.
I was delighted. At last, I realised, I might discover the answer to a question I’d posed to myself but never got round to asking of someone who might actually know the answer. The question is this: how does the clapping start at the end of a play?
Most of the time, of course, it’s not a question. The final line is delivered with the duh-duh-duh of a joke’s punchline. Or everyone knows the ending anyway. You know exactly where you are when, for example, Fortinbras announces: ‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot.’
Sometimes, though, it’s not clear quite where you’ve got to in the play. Is it a pause, a very long one, or is that your lot? I saw Sondheim’s Into The Woods in the park this year and, never having seen it or heard it in full before, I wasn’t at all sure if the end of the first half was the end of the whole thing. I wasn’t the only one, either. My friend Dorothy who was with me felt the same thing, too.**
So the lights dimmed on Blasted and the buggered journalist was, presumably, still there in the dark hole, getting wetter and wetter. All was silence, though.
No one clapped. No one stirred. (Perhaps it’s relevant that it was a Saturday afternoon matinee. Perhaps not.) The silence went on for thirty seconds, then more. A minute, I’d say. Then more, more. Perhaps even two minutes. Then rustles. Then the faintest of, well, not laughs exactly, amusements perhaps.
I’d always assumed — on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all — that the ushers were instructed, under these conditions, to start the clapping. Clearly, I was wrong.
Still more silence. No clapping anyway. Just the sound of people starting to turn round for a check on the house or whisper, not quite quietly enough, to their partner.
Then, finally, it came. The first clap, from someone over to the left of the balcony. And everyone joined in, of course. And the curtain rose and the cast of three — buggered, wet, dead, eyeless etc — stood to take the applause. Even they were smiling. Laughing almost.
* A knowing parody, perhaps, given that both her parents were journalists. But then, for that reason, perhaps not.
** Mr Sondheim himself was there that night, too, as it happens. I saw him at the interval, with a drink being brought to him. Astonishingly, given the obsessiveness of Sondheim fans and fanettes — fanosexuals, too — no one else seemed to notice him. I couldn’t bring myself to go over and tell him about the wonders of his rhymes.
I’ll regret it. I know I will. I bumped into the great TV writer Jack Rosenthal at a party and didn’t tell him about the wonders of his gags. He died not long after. I still regret my inaction, shamefully.
Why didn’t I do something? In Rosenthal’s case, I think because I was worried he’d say something like: which of my plays do you most admire? And the thought of that prospective question emptied my brain of the tiniest detail of his work. Well, all but the title of his Barmitzvah Boy — and that’s not enough to sustain a conversation past its opening sallies.
Next up A visit to the National Portrait Gallery (and maybe the story of Lacan’s con).