Old Stagers: The Kiss

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An ex-girlfriend, after the odd tête-à-tête, revealed to me that the first man she had ever kissed was now acting in the play in which we were both performing. My co- star. Not best pleased, I watched the two cavorting on stage (and increasingly enjoying themselves, I thought) and eventually asked my director to cut the scene from the script. ‘It’s not really necessary,’ I claimed, ‘it’s making obvious what should be felt as a undertone. And, well, they look really awkward.’
The last part wasn’t true. Worried though I was, our relationship lasted past the final curtain, since she could separate her acting from her life rather better than I gave her credit for. But the first part may have held some water. The Stage Kiss is usually the most sexually explicit action to take place on stage. Equus aside, most productions don’t go in for full-on nudity or sex; it gives the game away, reveals something that should be intimate, private.
In Edward II, which was recently performed in Oxford, Gaveston’s affair with Edward is referred to obliquely using the snide comments of peers and the tearful lamentations of Isabella. At first the audience take these treacheries and tears with a pinch of salt – a king and his male courtier having an affair? Surely not!
But add a kiss, and any ambiguities are lost. These people are clearly shagging. And this is about as explicit as we’re going to see. The kiss then does what any action in a play does; it reveals, makes explicit, adds to our understanding of the characters, and their relationships.
But very directly. The onstage kiss is overt, removing any subtlety. When we see two characters brushing lips, we rarely imagine anything beyond the obvious. The passion can be varied, the location, even the length – but just as in real life the kiss is, to an observer, an entirely one- dimensional act. It’s a kind of shorthand for: ‘Yes, they like each other.’
This can be potent. A character coming upon two other characters kissing can be led down all sorts of erroneous paths by the cackling spectre of misinterpretation. But more often the Stage Kiss is little more than soft porn to spice up the action. Directors use the kiss as something shocking and visually explicit to rouse the audience’s interest.
To see a play where the writer, or director, feels he can do without a kiss is rare; it can be conducive to a fuller and more complex picture. Without the obvious, our various interpretations of the subtle can blossom. What’s more, I won’t have to worry any more about of my girlfriends and their onstage romances.
By Timothy Sherwin

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