Theatre Review: Ghost Light // National Theatre of Scotland

Photo Credit: National Theatre of Scotland

An empty row of seats stares more intently at the stage than any audience ever could. The stage itself is empty, save for a single light bulb in the centre. The light is there to be maintained, burning until the space that once it illuminated is occupied, so that the stage is never truly empty. Never truly lifeless.

This is the ghost light; the symbol of theatre surviving in difficult times.

Ghost Light is also the name of a theatrical film by Hope Dickson Leach, released by the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s part of the My Light Shines On Festival, a series of online works by the Edinburgh International Festival, providing audiences at home with a link to the theatre in during the Coronavirus lockdown.

Photo Credit: National Theatre of Scotland

Watching Ghost Light feels like a love letter not just to theatre buildings, but to the theatre industry as a whole. The camera explores a darkly lit theatre, stopping to hear monologues and dialogue by a wide variety of characters, actors, production managers, stagehands, writers, extras and cleaners. Each speech is distinctive and separate, performed by a wide range of voices that give a different perspective of their connections to the theatre, Scotland, and to the world at large.

As a result of this style, two aspects of the production stand out most of all; the acting and the camerawork. The acting is top-notch all-round, Scottish actors such as James McArdle, Siobhán Redmond and Thierry Mabonga deliver monologues in a variety of styles and characters, ranging from the King of Scotland to an actress desperately awaiting her big break.

What makes the monologues interesting is not just their variety of subject matter, but the variety of performance styles. Some are grand and stage-ready, some feel only partly rehearsed (intentionally so, with an actor practising the speech in character), and some feel more casual and less stylised. This isn’t to say anything on the nature of their quality, for it showcases the stages of performance that dialogue goes through. Not all of them are the most engaging works of creativity, and everyone will have their different favourite. But the diversity of situations on-screen never fails to maintain interest.

Photo Credit: National Theatre of Scotland

As I said before, the camerawork is also a standout feature of this performance. The camera glides smoothly around the almost abandoned backstage of the theatre, showing the audience glimpses of the dressing rooms, the offices, the costume rooms and wings. You feel as though you are intruding in these new spaces, as the point-of-view perspective the camera grants you rarely interacts with the actors. Yet the vicarious pleasure that you gain from seeing these characters and performances is paramount to the enjoyment of the piece. In this way, Ghost Light takes advantage of the cinematic storytelling as the movement and closeness that the camera possesses over live theatre is fully taken advantage of.

Ultimately, Ghost Light is a strong reminder of what we love and miss about seeing live theatre. With strong talent going into the writing, acting and camerawork, National Theatre of Scotland have created an entertaining, varied, and emotional piece that leaves you even more impatient than you were before to return to empty theatre seats once more.

Words by Mischa Alexander.

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