Is onstage seating at the theatre a gimmick, or is it essential to some shows? Shaun Nolan can’t quite work it out, even after seeing Cyprus Avenue and The American Clock:

In recent weeks, I’ve seen multiple plays from seats on the stage – notably Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court and The American Clock at The Old Vic, and I’ll be seeing another when I finally catch Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck at the Almeida in a fortnight. That’s three shows, all running simultaneously, that offer this to their audiences. None of them are in commercial West End houses mind you, but that hasn’t stopped them in the past: I sat on stage for performances of both People, Places & Things and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in their West End transfer productions. Both shows originated at the National Theatre in their diverse Dorfman space.

Cyprus Avenue Royal Court

Cyprus Avenue’s Chris Corrigan & Stephen Rea (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

Why do creatives and producers think that onstage seating is a novel idea?

Do we think it’s worth the effort?

In a lot of instances, onstage seating is implemented because the original production was directed to be on a traverse stage. In the Dorfman, the space allows for the audience to be split 50/50 on either side of the stage; at Wyndham’s, the split was much more 85/15, maybe even less. Is forcing this staging into another production really a very productive thing to do, or is it a cash grab for those often overpriced onstage seats?

Perhaps this boils down to the question of why some shows are presented on different stages to others, and whether they should ever have to justify why that decision is made. Who is a non-proscenium staging set up for, what and who does it benefit? Is it artistically essential, or is it for novelty factor?

Fun Home (image courtesy of Marc Brenner)

In shows like Cyprus Avenue and The American Clock, as much as I enjoyed being as close to the action as possible, neither show felt like it was any better for having patrons sat on the stage because neither seemed to utilise the unique situation they were in. There are a lot of shows I’ve seen in diverse stage configurations that utilise and justify the change perfectly – Sam Gold’s direction of the original Broadway production of Fun Home, presented in-the-round, was much more impactful than his end-on staging in London at the Young Vic last year.

But there are also a lot of shows that don’t seem to use the change as an asset at all. In the same way that a writer is taught to keep every moment of a play relevant to the progression of the plot, perhaps directors should consider the relationship between production and staging as just as paramount.

I am all for theatres, producers and directors pushing the boat out and introducing audiences to innovative and different ways of experiencing the theatre through form and style. Without diversity like this, theatre becomes antiquated and audiences forget the unique experience of sharing the room with a group of actors. Everyone being in the same room, no matter the staging, is an inherently personal and immersive act.

This newfound trend of onstage seating is helping audiences remember that for sure, but I hope that when it continues to happen, it does so for the right and necessary reasons.

The American Clock

Regardless of where I sat, both Cyprus Avenue and The American Clock left me with thoughts on the art itself.

The former – a play by David Ireland that plays the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs after running Upstairs a few years ago – tells the story of a man coming to terms with his Irish identity in the most outlandish and surreal way possible. Ireland once said in an interview that he “struggles to end his plays without violence” and he delivers on that promise here. But Cyprus Avenue isn’t just a play with great action and drama. It’s also a piece with big heart and a lot of ideas to be discussed. It’s as much an idea play as it is a piece of entertainment and while I know for sure that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it was mine and is well worth a visit if you can.

What isn’t worth a visit is Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin’s revival of Arthur Miller’s little-produced play, The American Clock at The Old Vic. This play focuses on the great depression in 1930s New York, flopped hard on Broadway back in 1980 (it played less than 25 performances) and isn’t much better here. The script is a dud, a poor attempt at telling multiple stories at once that ends up presenting more structural conflict than it does synergy. But it isn’t helped by Chavkin’s force-fed direction, packaging a dark story in a box that feels like a cross between a steampunk daydream and a Disney cartoon. Some moments feel like they’re going somewhere and some performances shine through, but overall, I’d save my money.