In the course of the curtain call for ‘A Dog’s Heart’ – Simon McBurney’s sellout ENO opera based on a Bulgakov novel – the chorus performers take their massed bow first, followed by more prominent performers and so on. One of these latter, who has a small part as a stout well-to-do lady, crosses the stage in her character walk then, pausing to take the bow, hitches up her skirt hem a few inches and drops it, as if coquettishly but wishfully advertising her sexagenarian sexiness. A panto moment. But this is the curtain call. The show is actually over.
A few performers later, the soprano playing the maid Zina prefaces her bow with a couple of wacky calisthenic moves that have earlier served to signal her character’s ditziness. Finally, the star of the show, the tenor Peter Hoare, having played Sharikov the dog-man, scampers on and pretends to lunge doggily at the performer next to him in the lineup.
Why is the show still going on? The idea is that when you reach the last page of the script or, in this case, the score, you stop. There is a lighting change which facilitates a clear view of the performers’ faces and bodies, which have been divested of all the qualities of their fictional roles. If we are pleased we clap and, by so doing, please the performers. Then people leave the theatre.
It’s even worse at ‘Billy Elliot’. At the end the lights change, the cast takes its bows but then the entire troupe suddenly becomes inexplicably loveable, regardless of their erstwhile showtime qualities. This is not, however, an opportunity to glimpse their unadorned workaday charm. They have assumed new characters! Who proceed to deliver a right old knees-up replete with teeth, smiles and the obligatory ‘nimble turn’ executed by the oldest member of the cast!
Let it go, why don’t you? The curtain call has an important ritual function. It reseals the envelope between a fictional world and the everyday, thereby contributing to the reinforcement of the psychological skill known as ‘reality testing’. We must assume, given the leakages I have described, that the premium placed on such skills has been significantly reduced. We may now feel safer in imagining that Zina the Maid is downing a glass of vodka in The Salisbury in St Martins Lane, just up from the Coliseum, before returning to her flat in either Maida Vale or below stairs in her employer’s house in Moscow, depending on the levels of hybridity in which we choose to immerse these homunculi who hail simultaneously from fiction, our imaginations and the lives of everyday theatre folk.
It’s a harsh thing, the end of a show. As post-carnival suicide figures in Brazil attest, life can suddenly seem even drabber when the house lights come up. The possibility of magically maintaining a fiction in the eye of the hurricane of the everyday is detectable in fairy-tales wherein the woodcutter who helped out a disadvantaged goblin will be given three wishes, only to squander them on a succession of slapup feeds. As Jack Zipes has pointed out, the benighted mortals of the forest do not wish for social change that might alleviate their feudal misery because they cannot conceive of such a scenario, even in their most magical dreams. When a show with its heart in a progressive place, such as ‘Billy Elliot’, is hijacked by the sentimentality of West End actors who refuse to go home then not only is everyday life betrayed but it is as if the political aspirations embedded in the work are actuated and thereby instantly depotentiated. The distance between fiction and reality is collapsed thereby neutralising any leverage inhering in the fiction.
Chastising the actors for their indulgence is beside the point. It may be that they sense that their refusal of ritual will be warmly received in a climate in which the only defence against a predatory reality lies in chronic, concerted fabulation.