Theatre in the Age of Loneliness

I encountered A Man in Inverness a few days ago, disorientated, in the middle of the road, wailing at a couple of passers-by for help. They crossed the road quickly, as far from him as possible. The Man was suffering from acute alcoholism; yellow-skinned, red-eyed, urine-soaked breeks, his hands purple-mottled, heavy, spongy paws - like water filled rubber gloves. He was sobbing and in pain. The passers-by called out, tersely, “The doctor’s that way.” I took him off the road and called an ambulance.

As we waited, he (Nicholas) shared some mercurial words. “Look at that,” he said looking at a child on a tricycle, “Beautiful. Children.” And, “O, that Labrador. Dogs. Lovely.” More harrowing, “I still love my wife.” Tears then and, “She died 17 days after we were married. Cancer. Let me tell you something,” he went on, “… loneliness.”

I’m in the middle of a tour of Scotland with Clod Ensemble’s production of The Red Chair. The Red Chair, an archetypal piece of storytelling (with an edge), is an absurd tale of metamorphosis - a man eats so much he eventually grows into his chair. At its heart though, it’s a story about loneliness, neglect and addiction; each of the three protagonists carries a deep pain, which is manifest by their idiosyncratic and destructive obsessions. Recent studies reveal that addiction and self-harm are expressions of the three afflictions above; it’s also been proved that a cure-all for these ailments is love.

George Monbiot has coined our era The Age of Loneliness. Whilst technology continues to connect us in ever new and exciting ways, it’s ironic that we’re more isolated from our communities and clans than ever before – we’re lonely in epidemic proportions. No limits either as to who’s affected; teenagers and young adults addicted to social media, the elderly in care or isolated in remote parts, mothers struggling to cope whilst separated from extended family, and all others in between. The elderly fear they have lost the art of conversation. In truth, aren’t we all losing something that’s vital to our very survival as a species?

Atomised, we close our doors on the wider world; goaded on by reality TV, we seek out pleasure, distraction, wealth and impossible fame

We’re pack animals. We gather. From the beginning of our time on earth, we’ve done so. Gathering is essential for our well-being and our ability to thrive. Gathering empowers us too.

But our gathering posts, both in urban and rural environments - the pub, the post office, community centre and library, the theatre, the local bus route, the pharmacy - are closed or closing. It’s in these spots that we make time for each other, where we pass the time of day. We organise a protest, we sing, dance, chat or just ask, ‘Hello. How are you today?’

In the gathering posts that remain, The Huge Screen is ominously ubiquitous. If we’re not watching It, we watch our palm-sized screens instead. Anaesthetised, we drink at home, we watch YouTube or Netflix instead of making a trip to the cinema or theatre, we drive solo to work.

The other day, I watched a wee boy walking home, spellbound by his ‘smart phone’. Even the simple, meditative pleasure of walking, is robbed. Atomised, we close our doors on the wider world; goaded on by reality TV, we seek out pleasure, distraction, wealth and impossible fame. Day and night blur, lives speed ever faster, we needs must be gorgeously groomed winners. Heaven forefend, be a ragged loser!

Removed from our pack,we lose our sense of Soul, of how each of us is connected to the next, and the other, and ultimately to our world, our galaxy; also our bond to the land, our spiritual connectedness to the trees, the earth, our animal kin, the stars, the universe - our ancestors too. On this tour, I feel I’m walking in their ancient footsteps. I hear their warning cry.  

I have discovered how vital and intimate is the bond between performer and listener/see-er

There’s a photo here of the ancient, open and hallowed hands of The Cueva de Las Manos in Patagonia. I am somewhat fixated by this image. Stencilled on the cave walls, this 9300-year-old community, added to over millennia, waves at us through centuries as one joyful sea, each an individual within a whole; their wisdom, wit and strength present even today and how like us they are, I think.

I feel a primal rage about our segregations, so many of us isolated and alone. And I have a primative urge to bring us together, to gather, in this very pure and simple way. I smell the fire those ancestors of ours sat around at night. I see the stars. I feel the peace of not being alone, instead embraced by many cupped and willing hands, sharing tales of our lives, old and young, a circle of wonderful minds.

The other evening in Skye, towards the end of the night, a woman in the audience sneezed, loudly. She chuckled and said, “Oops, sorry!” … and we all laughed. It was very pleasurable. We were united, a bunch of humans in a room, telling a story, the notion of a performance, dissolved.

I have discovered how vital and intimate is the bond between performer and listener/see-er. Live theatre, when working well, focuses us into a kind of collective consciousness, we weave a spell together, the storyteller and the audience become one thing, made up of many unique parts.

When we gather to share stories in the flesh, rather than behind our online brand, we meet each others gaze, we really connect, we really engage, we transform and heal, we see ourselves reflected back in all our complexity and ragged earthiness; our common humanity revealed and shared. We feel empathy and forgiveness. We laugh.

The Red Chair indeed tells a tale of three afflicted individuals. Yet, it’s through the telling of their stories that each is given voice. And that’s what they needed. Their loneliness becomes our communion, and they in turn are set free. In the empty space, the magical space of theatre, we share the folly and joy of the human condition, and we are also set free.

The Red Chair is currently on tour in Scotland until 31st March. For full details of upcoming tour dates, please visit.

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