Time The Avenger

Darren Murphy (NPP 2102)

When I was a kid I got knocked down by a car. Looking for a place to cross a main road, I ran out between two parked vans without doing the the old Green Cross Code caper of looking left and right, into the path of a Datsun Sunny. I remember having time to think, blindside by the van to my left, that the Datsun which was to hit me had entered my peripheral vision but had not yet passed in front of me, as I stepped from the kerb. This information was no
useful to me, however, as I couldn’t change my course with the momentum pushing me onwards. Watching the Datsun hit me in slow motion, I thought how absurd it was I couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way of it. It clipped me with it’s corner bumper and sent me tumbling into a wall. Cut and grazed, but not badly hurt, the whole thing was over in
about eight seconds.

When I was a bit older I boxed for a few years as an amateur. I remember my first two fights in particular. In my first bout I was jangling with nerves but oddly disconnected. From the first bell I was intensely aware of every sound in the hall, of every twitch and convulsion of the crowd. I could pick out individual voices. My opponent hit me very hard with the first right hand he threw. I was very inexperienced, not having sparred much beforehand, and it seemed to go on forever. In the second bout I was extremely focused and was aware of nothing outside of the ring. I remember the vibrant blueness of the canvas, which was the same shade as Superman’s costume. My senses were heightened again, but my mind was sealed off. It went by in a blink. I couldn’t believe both fights lasted six minutes.

In film we are used to filmmakers using a galaxy of devices to bend, distort, reverse or stop time. The use of timelapse photography, stop motion animation, timesplicing, reversed motion, slow motion, accelerated motion, and the freeze frame to convey the elastic properties of time are so commonplace we barely notice them now. In theatre we can show.The season changing and time passing, but the distortion of time, if it is not to seem too
tricksy, is harder to pull off. Chekov shows us the passing of time between acts acts with the changing seasons in The Seagull, and I saw an early Dennis Kelly play called Blackout where the protagonist was an alcoholic who kept blacking out after binge drinking. The action progressed through a sequence of abrupt jump cuts that landed the character into the middle of a scene where something has just happened that he has no memory of. The audience finds out what has happened as he does. It unravels like a mystery. It didn’t quite work, but the concept was strong. Tom Murphy in Conversations On A Homecoming compresses an afternoon and a long evening into one uninterrupted act of about two hours. Conor MacPherson repeats this effect in The Weir.

Both plays take place in the pub, and the wild and discursive storytelling that takes place in both echoes the intoxicating time distortion that drink visits on us. The pub, they seem to suggest, is a liminal space where such magical transformation is possible. Mike Barlett compresses time in a different way in his first play My Child. In just over 50 minutes various characters act out a present tense traumatic event, the wrangling between a estranged couple about the ‘ownership’ of their child, whilst other related characters, who remain onstage throughout, call out to them from their past, their present, and their future.

This cross generational feedback shows the past exploding into the present whilst simultaneously undermining the future. There are no flashbacks, as each character is addressed in the present tense, much the same way as Willy Loman talks to his long lost brother in real time whilst no one else sees him, except here it almost feels the entire point of the play. The effect is incredibly unsettling.

These plays do more than use time as a device, I think. They embed the passage of time into the very fabric of these plays. They demonstrate the alchemy of stage time. I think the achievement of this is one of the hardest things a dramatist can pull off, as it requires both an absolute fidelity to the present tense action, which has to be grounded and concrete and ‘real’, and an investment in the fractured shifts in consciousness simultaneously happening onstage.
The effect of this I associate with a technique in film known as the Hitchcock zoom, or reverse tracking shot. Hitchcock first used it in Vertigo, and there’s a famous example in Jaws. It’s a complex effect which shows the character staying the same size in the frame whilst the background seems to be crashing in on them. It’s very disorientating and reveals a vertiginous shift in a character’s perception. It’s achieved by a camera tracking out whilst simultaneously zooming in at the same speed, and also keeping the subject in focus throughout. Looking at this effect it seems to effect space more than it does time, but our perceptions happen in time, so I think of it as the same thing. Now, film has the technology to create these effects, whereas I think the dramatist is tasked with addressing the way in which we represent time with much blunter tools. I think we achieve it through language and the silence and the way characters occupy and move through space.

The workshops have provoked these challenges and has made me think about how these effects might be achieved, and in such a way that they are more than just stage illusion. They’ve also made me realise that these plays which meditate on time passing show that it is not just an adjunct to the drama, sometimes it is the drama. As Chance Wayne urgently buttonholes us at the end of Sweet Bird Of Youth, it is us he addresses directly, not another character in the scene: ‘I don’t ask for your sympathy, just for your understanding. No, not even that. Just for your recognition of you, in me, and the enemy, time, in us all.’

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