Joyce McMillan: Attention-seeking at the Hydro

It was when I heard the people behind me chatting cheerfully amongst themselves during the performance – without remotely disturbing anyone around them – that I realised something strange was going on, at the giant new SSE Hydro in Glasgow.

The new 12,000-seater SSE Hydro in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
The new 12,000-seater SSE Hydro in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
The new 12,000-seater SSE Hydro in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

It wasn’t that they weren’t enjoying the show, one of three performances last weekend of a huge British-Dutch stadium version of Peter Pan, now on tour in the UK. Peter Pan - The Never Ending Story is a massively spectacular show, with actors flying around not only on wires, but on a fierce column of compressed air; and the mind-blowing filmic visual effects and graphics are as impressive as they are surreal.

What the audience reaction suggested, though, was that they weren’t quite responding as they would to a normal piece of live theatre, where the more or less undivided attention of the audience – hostile, rapt, or roaring with laughter – seems like a vital part of the event. Glasgow’s new Hydro at the SECC – sponsored by Scottish and Southern Energy, and opened last September with four huge Rod Stewart concerts – is a vast arena, capable of seating 12,000 people, with standing room for 1,000 more. As a home for rock concerts and indoor sporting events – including this year’s Commonwealth Games gymnastics – the new arena is set to boost Glasgow’s economy by a predicted £130 million a year; the city’s taxi drivers are already looking forward to another huge boost in business when Beyonce appears there, in February.

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The attraction of a such a massive arena for all kinds of entertainment producers is obvious, in other words; sell even half of the seats, at anything from £20 to £90 a pop, and an impressive stream of income is guaranteed. Yet to judge by the experience of watching Peter Pan, creating effective and absorbing theatre for an auditorium on this scale requires something more than spectacular visual effects, huge screens showing the faces of the actors, and a film-style musical score so loud and insistent that it doesn’t matter whether the audience talks through the show or not. The audience were reacting not as if they were at a theatre show or even a film, but as if they were at a live sporting event, interesting enough to watch, but perfectly capable of proceeding without their attention; and the loud narrative voiceover only added to the impression of being at a sports event, with chatty loudspeaker commentary.

So is it possible to create a more involving form of theatre for an arena this size? Possibly not; but it was striking how the audience’s relationship to the distant stage seemed to strengthen whenever the Belgian actor Wim Van Der Driessche appeared, playing Captain Hook as an operatic type who belts out Nessun Dorma to relieve his complicated feelings. Voice amplification is unavoidable, in a stadium this size. Yet there was something about the scale of the operatic emotion, the vocal energy, and the vividness of the character, that seemed to make communication possible, even so; just as Beyonce will have no trouble communicating, when she switches on her million-watt star persona, and sings straight to the audience.

All of which suggests that stadium theatre requires not just big visuals and loud music, but also big emotions clearly communicated, strong narrative lines, and a basic understanding that the magic of live performance always depends on giving actors or singers enough space to forge their own bond with the audience, and to draw them into the story. In Peter Pan, the pre-recorded parts of the spectacle too often overwhelmed and disempowered the live performers. I’m not convinced, though, that the scale of The Hydro – more sports arena than either theatre or concert hall – makes that imbalance inevitable; and it will be more than interesting to see what the cast and production team of Scotland’s iconic comedy show Still Game make of these challenges, when they roll up to The Hydro for a run of 21 performances in September.