Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales


Anna-Marie Taylor on a recent exhibition of stage design

The particular aesthetic perspective of the framed photograph in the newspaper the contained image of the television and cinema screen, and of the advertising hoarding, is the dominant way in which we present the actuality of our world. A forerunner to such containment, the framing of the stage picture within the proscenium arch of the theatre, is perhaps not surprisingly a means of visual presentation that is still very much with us today. Despite attempts to break free, directors and designers have continually returned to this familiar perspective; recognizing aesthetic satisfaction and, for the audience, a possible psychological reassurance in the framed, moving image.

In Make SPACE! design for theatre and alternative spaces - an extensive exhibition of stage design in Britain from 1990 to 1994 which was commissioned for Manchester's UK City of Drama, and was deftly organised by Theatre Design Umbrella - the dominance of such a window into the world was apparent, with design for proscenium theatres forming the largest individual part of the display. This impressive collection of work by British theatre artists (whose talents were recognised by winning the Gold Medal at the 1995 Prague Quadrennial) reached its final and only Welsh stop at Swansea's Glynn Vivian Art Gallery this winter; coinciding with the local Grand Theatre's one hundredth anniversary. Although work for larger theatre companies such as the National Theatre, Manchester's Royal Exchange and Mold's Clwyd Theatr Cymru was prominent, the striking diversity and high standards of smaller-scale companies were also generously featured. To complement the main part of the exhibition, there was also a "regional" section from Wales which embraced even more contemporary work from the mid-to-late 1990s.

The visual perspective of the stage picture behind the proscenium arch, and its miniaturised version in the exquisitely detailed set models on display, emphasised the sensuous plasticity of the theatrical experience; a seductiveness which has aroused the Puritanical fervour of many a Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Within this alluring frame, all can be possible, and the theatre's ability to suggest an alternative or heightened reality was apparent in adroitly conceived designs such as Patrick Connellan's for Tourneur's Tire Atheist's Tragedy (1994) at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. His stylish design translated the Jacobean reli~ious crisis into a cogent visual image; that of a fractured star-spangle canopy which stretched out beyond the proscenium into the audience. Through this vibrantly coloured firmament objects were flown throughout the production to stress the disruption of a world picture once based on a secure religious view. This ability to crystallise a complexity of meaning around striking visual images was apparent throughout the exhibition; not only in the design concepts for proscenium stages but also in the many designs for more unruly and less controllable spaces. Here practical considerations of using a specific and sometimes unconventional space often merged with a desire to impart visual significance to the design, calling for considerable creative ingenuity.

The larger budgets of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre, for example, have enabled designers to reconfigure the Opera to fit the thrust stages of the Barbican and Swan reinvented the space as a rickety makeshift theatre, "built by themselves, which could collapse at any moment". In a feat of stage engineering Mark Thompson liberated the space of the Royal Court Theatre for Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen.

For Cardiff-trained Lis Evans designing Anton Chekhov's Tire Cherry Orchard to suit the theatre in round architecture of the New space converged with the necessity to portray the orchard itself. Here Victoria Theatre in North Staffordshire, the demarcation of the acting the property of a declining class - symbolic of the aristocracy's social and economic diminishment - was conveyed through using white muslin round the stage area, the ghostly whiteness denoting the petalled presence of the orchard as well as marking the boundary of the gentry's villa. Similar materials were used in David B. Falser's costumes for The Fall of the House of Usher in 1993 at The Bloomsbury Theatre Workshop (converted from an underground car park) where the velvets and brocades suggestive of the Victorian era were eschewed in favour of white shroud-like clothes which not only hinted at the nineteenth-cen- tury asylum but also allowed actors freedom of movement. Palser's coda for his designs was that of frightened faces peering out of the darkness, and a good number of the stage artists in the exhibition have focused their use of stage space on specific ideas or images suggested by the text. This is particularly the case with touring theatre design which has to be easily transportable and yet indicate the interpretation behind a production with economy of ex- pression. In the main part of the exhibition Christine Marfleet's designs for Llandrindod Wells's Theatr Powys stand out for their imaginative austerity. Her design for Geoff Gilham's the Partridge Dance, a version of the Icarus legend, uses the practical prop of a sun-bleached glider to summon up the location (an Aegean island) as well as the soaring of human curiosity through the imagination.The Present, a highly ambitious theatre in education piece about the social psychology of Nazism, had its ideas counterpoised in Marfleet's stark, brutally unadorned design of a bench and overhanging light. A comparable paring down of the stage setting was also found in her designs for the Welsh-language version of Edward Bond's Red, Black and Ignorant and Romeo and Juliet.

In contrast to the Lenten starkness of Marfleets designs, the transformative use of stage space for site-specific events borders on the carnivalesque. Seasoned practitioners of such theatrical work, Cumbria's Welfare State International, were represented through one-off performances such as Trawler at Peace, the exuberant staging of the fishing industry at Grimsby's dockside, complete with giant inflatable fish and boats made of fireworks. Such extravagant celebration was also present in the installation Fragile Grft, an alternative response to the commercialism of Christmas shopping placed in Glasgow's Old Fruit and Flower Market. Disappointingly, in the main body of an exhibition which gave unusually good credit to theatre in Wales, innovative groups such as Brith Gof and Moving Being who have an influential record of such experimental practice were not represented. The "regional" section compensated somewhat for this oversight by including a video display of Clifford McLucas's radical sceneo-graphic concepts for Brith Gof productions including Haearn (Iron), Y Gododdin and A Oes Heddwch (Is There Peace). Here existing spaces - from a disused industrial works, to a swimming pool, through to a quarry - were converted to host some of the most challenging theatre work of the period from the point of view of actor, audience and stage technician.

More typical of contemporary Welsh drama was the preponder- ance of designs for touring shows in this section. Bill Hamblett's large latex puppets for Small World Theatre provided highly versatile, popular performers for the company's shows on development issues which have toured with considerable success to village communities in Sudan, Kenya, Vietnam and to detention camps in Hong Kong. Jesse Schwenk made a virtue of simplicity in his delightful designs for Cardiff's Theatr lolo which were informed by "the process of 'emptying out' rather than 'filling in"'; allowing the younger audience and actors to bring "imaginative life to the performance... so that a chair becomes an o d building, a step ladder a mountain, a broom a tree." The child's viewpoint was also celebrated by James Denton for Dic Edwards' Kid for Rhondda-based Spectade Theatre through placing exaggerated costumes within a tent; with the low eye-line ofthe young audience recognised through the reduced height of the playing area - an eye height which by the way was not recognised by Make SPACE! itself.

Machynlleth-based Men Wells's experience as a designer was shown in her sophisticated use of stage space for Max Frisch's grim parable of the herd instinct ,Andora, for Theatr Powys. Lorca's writings and North Moroccan clay buildings inspired her Moorish-looking design of "an enclosed but public space....where the wall would be absorbing truths, lies, fears and deception." A more abstract sense of stage space was also found in the alchemical principles behind Richard Aylwin's concept for In the House of Crossed Desires for Music Theatre Wales. Squares and circles acquired magical significance in this design, and the keyhole in the centre of the door on stage became the centre point of the performers, "the vanishing point of their illusions."

The larger repertory houses were well represented through Jane Linz Roberts' and Sean Crowley's inventive and richly textured de ; signs for prm ductions such as The Snow Queen and As You Like It at the ShermanTheatre, and the Torch Theatre's production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. But it was for touring company Theatr y Byd that the impressive Crowley produced his best work in this section, with an elaborately detailed set for Gareth Miles' translation of Daniel Danis's Lludrw'r Garreg (Stones and Ashes). This col lectively told account of remembered experiences was given physical reality in the set which comprised shelves and compartments, and opened up to reveal a world of memories. Theatr y Byd has made a point of involving visual artists, as with Swansea-based Tim Davies's work on Love in Plastic and is at present initiating a collaboration with Glasgow artists on dramatist Ian Rowlands's Blue Heron in the Womb for the autumn. Such open recognition of the centrality of the designer still appears rare in British theatre, where, rather like the scriptwriter behind a film, the stage artist is often not known by name, and, although absolutely central to the production, is eclipsed by the director and actors.

Make SPACE! is to be congratulated for making such an array of intelligent creativity visible in such a beautiful exhibition. It was a pity then that the additional Welsh section was mounted with much less care than the meticulously presented main part of Make SPACE! - indeed at times with the blue-tacky aplomb of a trainee infant teacher. Do we lack the experience to present such work adequately, or does such sloppiness betoken a lack of faith in Welsh theatrical achievements?

author:Anna-Marie Taylor

original source: Planet # 127, Feb/March 1998
01 February 1998


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