Intermission's mission

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 16, 2013

Hang on a sec, I'm going to use the bathroom," I told a friend, quite recently, in the 10 minutes before a play was due to open. "You might want to go too. There's no intermission."

Watching a two-hour play in a single sitting can be a bit of a stretch - both for the brain and the behind. It does not surprise me that the intermission, spliced right down the middle of a play, has come to be regarded as a toilet break.

The acclaimed British playwright Tom Stoppard once penned a letter to the late bibliographer Philip Gaskell on the Broadway Bladder - "a term... which refers to the alleged need of a Broadway audience to urinate every 75 minutes", as he called it.

This 1975 letter was, unsurprisingly, not an entirely happy one - a year earlier, Stoppard's play, Travesties, had to be trimmed to suit these fickle bladders of the Broadway audience.

It occurred to me that a number of plays staged here this year, however, have taken to eliminating that customary breather, even though you would hardly consider these plays short.

One was Nine Years Theatre's excellent Mandarin adaptation of the American courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men in February, which skipped nary a beat from start to finish. The two-hour showcase of tour de force ensemble acting was compelling and emotionally draining, and made me forget about the existence of my bladder.

Several intense two-person works, riding on that need to keep the rhythm of conversations going, also did away with the intermission. Young playwright Faith Ng's marriage drama For Better Or For Worse, presented by Checkpoint Theatre, and the Singapore Repertory Theatre's sexy Venus In Fur come to mind. Both were staged last month.

As was the case for all these works, I emerged from that hothouse of theatrical energy all shaky with emotion. They were rather cathartic experiences.

While it may be easy to view the intermission as something that is not part of the play, I would argue that the inclusion - or exclusion - of the interval is a crucial directorial decision.

If any of the directors had inserted an intermission halfway through Twelve Angry Men, Venus In Fur or For Better Or For Worse, which were each about two hours long, the quick, urgent clip of each production would have lost its edge.

But if celebrity Hong Kong director Edward Lam had decided to do without his intermission during his four-hour epic Awakening earlier this year, I think I would have slunk out of the Esplanade Theatre. The glitzy, contemporary take on the Chinese classic text Dream Of The Red Chamber was star-studded, but terribly slow.

The 10- to 20-minute intermission was not always intended for the audience to stretch their legs. Elizabethan dramatic works, like Shakespeare's, did not have intermissions to begin with.

French academic Patrice Pavis, in his Dictionary Of The Theatre: Terms, Concepts, And Analysis (1998) notes that the intermission slowly evolved from its practical purposes - to allow for a change of scenery and for the actors to rest - to a period of time for the audience to exercise their "critical faculties". They could ponder the work and judge its merits and demerits during this brief return to the real world.

In a sense, the intermission is an odd sort of limbo where you are suspended between two halves of the action, removed from the illusion that the stage creates.

With a generous helping of snark, Pavis writes of productions without an interval: "Riveted to his place, mute, his back aching from seats designed with no consideration for human anatomy, the present-day spectator cannot even express his bad temper - he is compelled to take part in the religious ceremony of 'mass-en-scene' and not break the continuity of the performance.

"In this test of endurance, it is a coup to prevent the 'brain drain' of the spectators from the theatre space."

The intermission, however, can also be quite a literal drain - when audience members, no longer held captive, decide to leave before the play is through. Surveying the number of empty seats in a theatre post-intermission is a pretty straightforward way of gauging how much patience an audience has (or, conversely, how bad a play is).

I have personally been abandoned several times at intermissions, or faced with threats of abandonment.

"Do I really want to spend more of my life watching this?" one of my friends once asked during a rather unimpressive production. She then answered her own question with: "I don't think so."

To ease the pangs of separation anxiety, she sat and chatted with me until the lights dimmed for the second half, and then she promptly slipped out.

I watch about 70 to 80 performances a year. And I must admit that there have been occasions where I have caught myself groaning internally: "Give me a break." But I have rarely left.

I suppose I have been conditioned to believe that no matter how trying the production, there is no guessing where it might go next or how it might end. Whether a play soars or tanks hinges much more on that tiny sliver of extra time than we realise.

It would be nice if our own lives - "all the world's a stage" et al - had intermissions for us to evaluate ourselves. Or if we could make the time to snap out of those intensely emotional moments, examine our narrative arc, and step back.

The intermission, in a sense, is a beacon of hope.

Well, it might be false hope - but it is hope nonetheless.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 16, 2013

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