F is for Fourth Wall

| March 4, 2014

From A Doll’s House to Sleep No More

By the end of this month, I will have attended a performance of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Sleep No More. It got me thinking about the use of space and the identification of the audience and artist in very different contexts.

Entering into a theatre, at any time in history, we buy-in to an event. We’re participating in something and part of that is a participation of imagination, investment into a story, saying, ‘ok let’s pretend’.” Yet how we pretend is something impacted by curious factors.

We can identify certain aspects of the modern theatre as emblems or artifacts of the parallel modernist worldview – a growing separation and distance between subject and object, viewer and world. In the theater, distancing the audience from performance gives rise to what is commonly known as the “Fourth Wall”, that imaginary divide separating audience from art, subject from object. With the birth of modern theatre (starting around Ibsen), the design moved toward picture painting, set design, and the sense of the invisible fourth wall became a staple. Since, no actor has had interaction with the audience, but instead assembles in an awkward three-quarter angle delivering lines to an invisible wall.

In the pre-modern era, most of the audience was watching people that were very unlike themselves. In other words, literal identification was a stretch. With Ibsen and the modern theatre, there was increasing fascination with the private lives of middle class, a voyeurism, an inside look into private comings and goings. There seems to be an interesting divergence at play: as content grows more similar, its display grows more remote. So that, with reality TV, for example, we are not watching portrayal of something familiar or similar but, rather, an observation of something the same. So much so, that the similar and the removed seem bound in paradox.

Sleep No More seems so interesting in that it finds ways to let things float free of their specificities, slip from their categories, their objectifications, and enter a fluid space of interactive negotiations. The audience feels or gets involved in a way that feels like they’re participating. There is really no story here, no desire to tell a particular tale; there is almost no character, no personality at the centre of the ambition; nor any issue or thematic material serving as content either.  It seems there is only a preoccupation with the act of making theatre, in particular, theatre that is trying to recast its relationship with its audience. It sets its site on that traditional binary of audience-performance, subject-object, and imagines instead an effortless drift back and forth, where no object remains stable long enough to pin it down and cease inquiring of it.