Theatre in Wales

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

Design in_the_Theatre

Simon_Harris_considers_the tensions_between_literary_drama and_visual_performance_in contemporary theatre in Britain


In December, the playwright David Edgar gave a lecture to a small group at the University of Glamorgan. His intention was to outline a history of new writing in British theatre since 1956, the year in which Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble came to London with his hugely influential The Lifeof Galileo. In passing, Edgar reflected on the early days of ‘alternative’ theatre and, with humour, on the unlikely centrality of Bradford to
subsequent generations of theatre-makers. Edgar talked about the Bradford festivals of 1970 and 1972 as significant counter-cultural gatherings, with the participants forming a ‘who’s who’ of the revolution in theatre that would come later. After the 1972 festival, however, Edgar lamented, it was almost as if there was a schism in ‘the party’, a falling
out between two different camps: one camp Edgar characterised as the ‘literary-verbal’, and the other as the ‘physical-visual’. It is hard to imagine people in Shakespeare’s theatre being much bothered by these distinctions, but it is difficult to deny that the embourgeoisement of theatre in the late-nineteenth century led to the privileging of ‘plays’ and ‘drama’ over ‘theatre’ and ‘performance’, as Artaud has argued. However, it was in fact Aristotle who originally made drama a medium of artistic
expression marked by poetry and words rather than choreography or the physical manifestation of space, but perhaps it was only when the light in the auditoria dimmed and plays became successful as publications that ‘the physical’ was banished to the circus and ‘d_cor’ became synonymous with ‘background’.

From 1956 onwards, the ‘literary-verbal’ approach to stage representation was most strongly associated with the work of the Royal Court Theatre and, in particular, with the designs of Jocelyn Herbert. In a sense, Herbert forged the Royal Court aesthetic _ itself informed by the work of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. Peggy Ashcroft described Herbert as
‘the heart of the Royal Court’, and Tony Richardson acknowledged that she had ‘a better sense of the heart of a play and the author’s vision than anyone I’ve ever worked with’. Typically, she was the first to reveal a naked stage with the lighting grid and brickwork exposed, while employing the large-scale use of elemental materials such as burnished metal. Herbert herself described her work as follows:

For me, there seems no right way to design a play, only, perhaps, a right approach. One of respecting the text, past or present, and not using it as a peg to advertise your skills, whatever they may be, nor to work out your psychological hang-ups with some fashionable gimmick.

While directors such as Bill Gaskill even now talk fervently about Jocelyn Herbert’s contribution to theatre and her forthright commitment to ‘good work’, an abiding criticism developed that was averse to an aesthetic of ‘poetic naturalism’ which some saw as puritanical and others as ‘boring minimalism’. The irony here, of course, is that the Royal Court is a writer’s theatre.

In the ‘90s, the creative tension that led Mike Pearson among others to declare that the play was ‘not the thing’ also saw a vibrant performance and physical theatre scene staking out radical and innovative territory on the margins as well as in the mainstream. While Forced Entertainment, Gardzienice Theatre and others nurtured international avant-garde reputations, companies such as Shared Experience, Complicit_ and
Improbable re-invigorated mainstream theatre practice with an approach to text that was informed by commedia tradition and expressionist physicality derived from study with the likes of Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. While imaginative design was crucial to all this work, there are few individual designers whose reputation grew by association with it. Perhaps an exception to the rule would be the late Cliff McLucas of Brith Gof, who, while he was not simply a designer, made an extraordinary contribution to that company’s use of location and space. Although a strong emphasis on the physical body of the performer and on the visual experience generally are common to all these companies, the crucial difference is not to be found along the narrow fault-line of text and image, as David Edgar suggests. As Mike Pearson himself has pointed out, anybody who thinks that his performances are not ‘written’ have not, as he says, ‘been paying attention’.


Such was the crisis in theatre in 1997 when New Labour came to power that the Arts Council of England commissioned Peter Boyden Associates to write a study on the state of regional theatre. The report confirmed that audiences were literally dying out as theatres increasingly tried to second-guess and chase after an ageing and dwindling theatre-going population with ever more conservative programming. Boyden’s proposal
was significant: he suggested that money should be invested in new and more diverse work, particularly of the devised, non text-based kind. New writing had a place in the scheme of things, but there was a slightly grudging accommodation of it. It seemed to endorse the idea that new plays were essentially dusty and old-fashioned, whereas new work was intrinsically current and innovative. At a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain
meeting called to address this challenge, Mark Ravenhill went as far as to dismiss non text-based work as ‘theatre for acrobats’. Undoubtedly, however, Boyden’s endorsement was based on the perception of a working method whereby the ‘literary-verbal’ privileges the vision of the playwright and the ‘physical-visual’ is informed by a
collaborative ethic according to which the text is just one element among many others contributing to the performance. Certainly, the early methodology of a group like Forced Entertainment, whereby a prolonged devising process could lead to different individuals or a group taking responsibility for scenic design, music or text, would seem to bear this out. But the reality is more complicated than the reductive nature of the
theory seems to suggest. Tension about who was the ‘authorising’ presence in rehearsal led to the company Complicit_, for example, becoming an expression of Simon McBurney’s vision, rather than that of the other founding members. Similarly, Improbable and Forced Entertainment have become increasingly identified with Phelim McDermott and Tim Etchells. On the other hand, before she took up the post of inaugural director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone’s programme of work with new writing company Paines Plough was posited on collaboration with companies such as Frantic Assembly and Graeae, where a conventional approach to text was a nonstarter.
It can be argued, therefore, that, when all theatre is made through collaboration, it is in the nature of the collaborative process itself to highlight differences.

Theatre is a visual medium, as well as a verbal one. Following a performance, apart from the piece itself and the performers generally, it is the look of a production that audiences are most likely to remember. Several behavioural studies _ although they do not compare directly to the theatrical experience _ have shown that over half the impact left by a first impression is physical and visual, over a third is auditory or soundbased
and just 7% is to do with content. While the roles of the dramatist, the actor, the musical director and the choreographer are not mysterious to many people, an understanding of the work of the stage designer is much less common. Quite often, audiences and critics are unable to differentiate between the work of the director and the designer, more
often than not subsuming the designer’s input into the director’s vision. This lack of distinction is regularly played out in theatre reviews in which designers are barely mentioned, or, if they are, it is in order to commend something decorative, or an effect that had passing impact, rather than for their contribution to the expression of the performance’s meaning. In a good production, the creative relationship between designer and director is indeed very close, but the two roles are distinct. Some
directors need designers to give a three-dimensional shape to their understanding of the text, while some designers find the literary nature of a play difficult, and struggle to understand the actor’s process. In a production, a negotiated understanding of what either person can offer is essential to the relationship. Ideally, stage design is not decoration, nor is it background setting, nor, for that matter, is it a blank canvas for the
imposition of abstract concepts brought in from outside the world of the piece itself. Although not a perfect definition, designer Richard Hudson’s description of his job as ‘choosing what the audience will see’ does in some ways begin to express the totality of the designer’s art.

Space is the starting-point for any designer. Quite often, discussions begin about how best to make an intervention in the interchange between spectator and spectacle. It is extraordinary the extent to which modern, often purpose-built theatres provoke discussions between designers and directors about how best to mitigate the shortcomings of the theatre space and create the best conditions for the audience to become engaged. Increasingly, the desire is to utilise ‘found’ space and to adapt it to
performance. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Brith Gof, companies such as Shunt, Grid Iron and Dreamthinkspeak are finding audiences with an appetite for highly visual and imaginative site-specific theatre, which ignores the black box or the conventional auditorium in favour of a disused railway arch, or the London Underground, or even, yes, Debenhams. One of the most satisfying solutions I have seen to the problem of how to animate a variety of difficult, less than conducive, spaces was created when I worked on Gary Owen’s Ghost City with designer Soutra Gilmour. Like many touring companies, Sgript Cymru was presented with the challenge of moving from an intimate black box in Cardiff to large auditoria in arts centres, to studio spaces, to a blue box in New York, before returning finally to a converted warehouse with a low ceiling in Hackney. After a long period of research and preparation, followed by a lot of trial and error, Soutra presented me with a simple sketch on the Friday before rehearsals began _ a series of twenty-four cool, contemporary and hollow blocks, which could be placed and reassembled as necessary. Working almost like an installation, they successfully adapted and informed each space they inhabited, as well as being extremely practical for transatlantic touring. The nuances of colour and composition, the ability to animate a sense of time passing and of a specific moment, to imbue an informing sense of metaphor with a feeling of place, and to create telling details through the use of costume and props are all central to the designer’s job. All of these skills reflect a belief in the power of visual imagery to generate meaning and, in modern theatre, militate against the argument that any theatrical event, even if it is verbal, is not simultaneously visual. It just depends on the willingness and the ability of the spectator to read it as
such. Great design can draw attention to itself; equally, it can appear unobtrusive. At its best, it can solve many questions and pose others in order to create the necessary meeting-point between audience and performance. However, if design is about ‘choosing what the audience will see’, a painstaking, obsessive attention to the art of looking is perhaps an overriding quality of the designer. In Friends, Brecht wrote a poem about his designer, Casper Nehar, in which he celebrated Nehar’s ability to look

The war separated
Me, the writer of plays, from my friend the stage designer.
The cities where we worked are no longer there.
When I walk through the cities that still are
At times I say: that blue piece of washing
My friend would have placed it better.

One of Jocelyn Herbert’s legacies has been the contribution of an award: together with the Linbury Biennial Prize, the Jocelyn Herbert Award is one of the most prestigious opportunities for a young designer at the start of his/her career. The 2005 recipient, Elan Parry, who is from Cornwall, was considered to be the candidate who most epitomised Jocelyn Herbert’s ‘genuine interest in all aspects of theatre and belief in the importance of the collaborative effort needed to make the end result work at its best’. Elan has already developed a crowded CV of work with cutting edge physical theatre companies, such as Gecko and Kneehigh, as well as contributing to the art and performance collective Society of Wonders. Together with the outstanding students emerging from The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama under Sean Crowley’s tutelage, the work of such emerging talent is ensuring an exciting future for stage
design in the UK.

Simon Harris is the founder and artistic director of Sgript Cymru, the drama company that specialises in new writing by Welsh and Wales-based playwrights. He is currently undertaking a year-long fellowship sponsored by the Arts Council of Wales and the Assembly Government. He is the first Welsh recipient of a prized Clore fellowship, which promotes leadership in the arts.

author:Simon Harris

original source: Originally published in New Welsh Review, spring 2006
23 May 2006


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