Joyce McMillan: Split-second silence can be golden

Peter Arnott's Janis Joplin: Full Tilt at Oran Mor. Picture: Contributed
Peter Arnott's Janis Joplin: Full Tilt at Oran Mor. Picture: Contributed
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Why the brief silence at the end of a show is so important

Acouple of weeks ago, it happened again. The scene was the downstairs space at Oran Mor, home of the hugely successful Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre series; the show was Peter Arnott’s Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, a powerful play about the last days of the great Janis, featuring a thrilling central performance from Angela Darcy. At the end of the show, the singer and her band had left the stage; Angie Darcy’s voice had faded, to be replaced with the original recording of Janis, finishing the song. Then it went dark; and the audience were left for a moment to relish what was possibly the finest single show of the 14 in this year’s autumn season at Oran Mor.

Or they would have been left to relish it; if some bright spark in the audience hadn’t decided to signal his or her superior knowledge of the Joplin oeuvre by starting to clap before the last note had faded. To me, the effect was shattering. I knew I had seen a great show, and I could remember all the aspects of it that made it great. Yet the idiot premature clapper had robbed me of the rich, full, golden moment of silence and recognition, before the roar of applause, that would have sealed the emotional experience of it; and I fell to wondering what it is that makes that split-second pause at the end of a great show so important, and why those who fail to respect it seem, at some level, to be wrecking the whole experience.

This is not, I should make clear, the same argument about premature applause that rages in the world of classical music, where the term is mainly used to berate people who applaud at a time – the end of a movement in a symphony, for example – when audiences traditionally remains silent; although I have noted that audiences at classical concerts also often include a show-off element, who like to applaud as soon as the last note is sounded. And it’s not quite the same as the argument about bad curtain calls, which abound in 21st century theatre; curtain calls that are too brief and perfunctory to let the audience fully respond to the show, or too heavily orchestrated to let the audience have its moment, and take control of its own reaction to the work.

The question of what happens when that vital final moment of silence is broken, though, seems to me more mysterious, and less well understood. It’s related to the way in which a mediocre show can sometimes completely save itself, in the final scenes, by gathering itself to a conclusion that suddenly makes complete emotional sense. And it suggests that in live performance, time is not exactly linear, but somehow cumulative; so that all the preceding moments of a successful show are somehow contained in its final moment, which bulges like a giant raindrop with all the meaning built up during the performance.

I’ve heard actors say that when a show is going well, time seems to both fly and stretch, so that every moment seems huge and full of potential, even though the whole show seems to be over in a flash; I’ve seen great plays – Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is one – flash brilliantly into focus in their final seconds. And I have often sat with tears in my eyes, feeling cheated of a whole precious experience, because of the fool who clapped in that precious moment just after the last breath of performance. Time, perhaps, for some clever scientist to begin to investigate what is going on here, and whether some of the strange truths about the nature of time suggested by advanced quantum physics aren’t being revealed and explored in theatres across the land, every night of the week.