You don’t see a play using a traverse stage for a ages and then two come along at once. But Yerma at the Young Vic and Unfaithful at Found111 reminded just how powerful it can be compared to the usual proscenium arch.
Just to remind you, a traverse stage runs the full width of the auditorium with the audience on two sides. Yerma starring Billie Piper not only put the audience on two sides of the stage but encased the acting area in glass. Unfaithful at the temporary Found111 space was in a small room with barely 60 people facing the same number across the stage.
You might think that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting and I guess it could be if the action were not riveting. Fortunately in the case of these two shows, there was no chance of that. Instead you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching a performance. In this respect, the arrangement is the same as a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.
The sense of examining the characters and their stories was underlined by Yerma‘s use of glass. Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself rather than different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness).
The same feeling that you were examining the characters was what made Unfaithful so powerful. This story about an older couple who, bored with their years of marriage and pushed by mid life crises, have liaisions with younger people who themselves are struggling to separate sex and love.
Intimacy is the other characteristic of the traverse stage. With the audience divided in half, we’re all close to the action. Every twitch, every blink is visible. There’s no possibility of an actor taking a rest. Any lack of concentration will be noticed. The kind of actor that says acting is about learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture doesn’t stand a chance in this arena. The good actor who inhabits the part physically and mentally can form the strongest of bonds with the audience, as did the four actors in Unfaithful- Niamh Cusack, Sean Campion, Ruta Gedmintas and my cousin Matthew Lewis.
There is a moment when the husband of Niamh Cusack’s character makes a surprising revelation. We’re as shocked as she is. We know she can’t let her husband realise the full effect on her of what he’s said but we can see the slight widening of the eyes and ripple that goes through her body as she stiffens. On another occasion, Sean Campion rubs his nose. It’s a small gesture easily missed in a large auditorium but it matters because of what was said earlier about him.
Under the magnifying glass of a traverse stage the script and direction also have to be spot on. So full marks to Unfaithful’s Owen McCafferty for a script without a wasted word and Adam Penford‘s direction that filled every moment wherever you looked.