Friday, 20 April 2012

Theatrical props, sets and realism

Lois and I went to Stratford last weekend to see Twelfth Night at the the RST and then Richard III at the Swan. The former was staged on a set which is, I understand, fundamentally the same for the three ship wreck plays of the current run. For Twelfth Night it was a detailed as a shabby hotel lobby on a tropical island with an old fashioned lift back left, a reception back right, rotating door and, front left a pool of water from which – to my surprise – two actors made a submerged entrance. As is typical of the RSC, the production made the best possible use of the set and the production was as good as I could imagine of this play.

We saw Richard the Third with two further friends who don’t often go to the theatre (and certainly not to see Shakespeare) and to whom we’d suggested this play rather than the previous night, thinking that they might as well see a serious play rather than a comedy. I was thus a little worried at the start to see just how stark the set was. It comprised an screen wall at the back of the stage in which various openings could be made (doors, windows) with some bits of furniture brought forward onto the thrust stage when needed. But to begin with, and for the first 20 minutes or so, the stage was blank and the wall had a single large opening. This put full weight on the idea of the play as dialogue. In fact, despite some mixed reviews, this seemed to work well. The wooing scene, with just a coffin on stage, worked particularly well. Words as major force.

But it made me wonder how one would decide what one wanted by way of scenery and set. What was used in this production seemed tied to modes of particular expression. So for example, when a throne we’d seen before was brought back on stage for Richard’s coronation, it was brought on backwards so that Richard’s further plotting came as asides to us the audience rather than to his audience in front of him (partly hidden behind the rear screen). The prop was there just for the dialogue.

By contrast, the main theatre set seemed as much to be a spectacle in itself as to serve the particular expressive needs of the acting. There is simply some delight to be had from the slow descent of a rickety lift or the sudden emergence from a tank of water beneath the stage. But, unlike some productions I’ve seen on the main stage in the past, at least the set did not outperform the actors. It could fall into the background. Further, reflected in the way that no changes were made whether the action was inside or out – outside the hotel’s furniture was simply ignored in the way that the absence of anything in the Swan was ignored – its role was again suggestive rather than realistic.

A few weeks ago I had wondered what the difference was between The West Wing or the Ides of March and a production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy at the Crucible. One striking difference was simply movement: when one actor spoke, no one else did and, in fact, no one moved a muscle. But another was the stripping away of all background except the action. It is almost as though all there is is the dialogue: a kind of radio on stage.