Reading the interview with Harriet Walter in today’s Guardian reminded me of seeing her superlative performance in the Donmar Warehouse all-female Shakespeare Trilogy and how utterly star-struck I was when she sat (briefly, in-character) next to me, and how good she smelt.*
It made me think how surprisingly few are the times theatres rely on senses other than sight and hearing to keep us entertained. Taste is an understandable absence of course – even pre-COVID I don’t think licking the set or the cast would have been popular with stage managers. Although one of my earliest theatre-going memories does involve being fed snacks while on stage and I suspect tie-in treats could go a lot further than flavoured popcorn at premieres.
Equally, touch is tricky when we are all stuck in seats, although I note that no less than twice I have been hit in the face by flying bits of prop – a balloon in The Tempest and a poster in Julius Caesar.
But smell? In the closed space of a theatre – and in modern times when the audience is hopefully bringing fewer odours of their own with them – it feels like this should be a possibility.** And not just the smell an ovine cast might bring with it, but real, intentional smells which seek to bring us further into the action.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has its own distinctive scent of beeswax candles – but has experimented with key moments and the Globe has occasionally got in on the action. Outside of the Shakespeare – I recall the Bridge Theatre giving us Karl Marx frying bacon in its opening play, entirely appropriate for a space whose interval snack of fame is the Proustian madeleine.
But what more could there be? How immersive would a beery Cheapside be in Henry IV, or a musty Verona tomb in Romeo and Juliet? And could it work in practice – with modern AC (or just wind, for the Globe) to take away the smell as the scene changed?
I’d love to know if any of you have smelly theatrical memories of your own…
* I don’t think I included it in my review at the time – I was trying to be semi-serious back then.
** It does rely on the absence of mothballs.