Theatre Of The New Ear

by Suw on May 16, 2005

I've never really been to the theatre much. I usually enjoy going, but I tend not to because I never know what is worth going to see. (I have seen some shit in my time, and these days I'd rather not waste the money on anything that might turn out to be crap.) But on Friday night I think I saw the best piece of theatre, certainly of my life to date, possibly ever.
The Theatre of the New Ear was two original sound plays by Joel and Ethan Coen, and Charlie Kaufman, set to music by Carter Burwell with live foley effects. It was, frankly, the most amazing thing I have ever seen – it's not often one gets the privilege of seeing performers like John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep. Yes, that's right. Meryl Streep. Eep.
The first sound play – think radio play but without the radio – was Sawbones, written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Slattery and Brooke Smith. It was about, I think, a door-to-door salesman, one of the housewives he had his eye on, her husband, and the events surrounding a vacuum cleaner demonstration.
Unfortunately, the first scene of this play was ruined by the idiots sat behind us who insisted on talking loudly throughout. The play was very full on – lots of people talking at once, lots of foley sound effects, lots of music, so it was hard to follow even without the annoying twats talking over the top of it. By the middle of the second scene I had a better idea of what was going on, and they had quietened down a little bit. Not much though. Idiots.
Still, what I caught of the play was great – really amazing timing in places, amazing foley, and generally an astonishing piece of work. Pity it was ruined by the philistines.
During the intermission, several of us asked the idiots behind us to be quiet. They argued back quite forcibly that they had every right to talk through the evening if they wished. How on earth do these people come to the conclusion that they have no responsibility to the people around them? Several more people joined in the argument, and eventually the prime idiot's friends were so embarrassed by him that they were shushing him and encouraging him to change seats, which he actually did.
In due course, the auditorium was full again and the actors came out on stage for Charlie Kaufman's Hope Leaves The Theatre, staring Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep. The house lights, however, didn't go down. The audience weren't entirely sure what to think as the slowly we hear a muttering coming over the PA.
Now, here's where it gets very hard to describe the play without it sounding like a great big pile of wank. Hope Davis plays Louise, a member of the audience in a theatre where Charlie Kaufman's play, Hope Leaves The Theatre, is being performed. Dinklage plays a theatre critic and Streep his companion. Now, I know how that sounds – typical arch Kaufman self-referential twaddle, but oh my, Louise's opening monologue was one of the funniest things I've heard in ages. We were just captivated straight away.
As the play goes on, so the Critic and his Companion and Louise think and cough and mumble, and so the play they are watching begins – a man and a woman in an elevator in a hospital with 2000 floors. It's a long ride to the top, and a Voice announcing each floor along with the story of a child who died at four weeks. The play they are watching sounds tedious, not to mention a bit surreal.
Then Louise gets a phone call from her mum. Oh, horror! Oh, the embarrassment! She tries to shush her mother, at which point Streep, in character as the woman in the lift, breaks character and becomes Streep playing Streep telling Louise the audience member off for being rude, inconsiderate, selfish and for thinking that the theatre is the same as sitting at home watching TV and stuffing crisps in your gob all night long.
Suddenly, the night had taken a turn for the meta that even Kaufman could not have predicted. One could almost believe that the idiots behind us had been planted, if it weren't for the fact that Streep's diatribe patently made them squirm. I could feel them sinking into their chairs, as the audience around them bristled agreement and approval. Streep's rant against the ignorance of modern theatre goers then culminated in the ultimate demand that we all wished we'd had the balls to make of the twats behind us: “Shut the fuck up!”
You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. You could have spooned it into bowls and fed it to people as a midnight snack. There's no way Streep or Kaufman could have known that there'd be tosswits in the audience, although I suspect that the betting was odds on favourite for that being so.
Of course, Kaufman then takes the cleverness a bit further, as Streep reveals that this was 'the last play he wrote before he committed suicide' and promptly starts to sniffle. The different threads then start to interweave, become more meta, funnier, cleverer, but never getting arch, never getting pompous or self-satisfied. It's impossible to describe it now – it would ruin it, by making it sound arch, pompous and self-satisfied.
I would absolutely love to hear a recording of the evening. There were, I am sure, so many jokes I was missing because I was laughing so hard, so many things I didn't quite hear. Certainly I can say I have never seen a piece of theatre like this before. Ok, so I'm not a theatre aficionado so that's not saying much, but still. For me, it was the best theatre I've ever seen. I came away from it, from the very meta-self-self-meta-referential conclusion of it, with my brains dribbling out of my ears – but in a good way, in the way where you wish you had a TARDIS just so you could go back to the beginning of the evening and do it all again, right there and then.
And all that's before you start to think about it… I was in the same room as Meryl Streep. I saw her perform. Live. My god. How many chances will I get to do that again in my life? Probably none. An amazing evening. Awesome. In the original sense.

Anonymous May 17, 2005 at 12:21 am

I am so totally jealous. The Coens, Kaufman, Buscemi and John Goodman. Damnnnn. Did anyone in the audience remark that PSH looks a lot like Scoble? :-)

Anonymous May 17, 2005 at 8:22 am

Great post! And to think I almost missed it (I very nearly unsubbed you yesterday from my bloglines, not giving a toss about your powerbook).

Anonymous May 17, 2005 at 8:34 am

You nearly unsubbed??? Oh my god. I know I've been maudlin lately, and possibly obsessed with gadgetry (mainly because I've been trying to distract myself from feeling maudlin), but unsubbing? I promise I will try to do better from now on.
Oh, shit, and I just posted about my iBook… Eeep.
*tries desperately to think of something interesting to write about*

Anonymous May 18, 2005 at 3:50 pm

Great post! It was an incredible show. The Coen Brothers seem to be in a bit of a slump at the moment. I found their play a bit ragged and confusing. But Hope Leaves the Theatre was pure entertainment!
See other UK reviews:
Chris Brauer and here

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