Theatre in Wales

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Great Christmas Feature on Theatre Lighting

Radio Arts Feature

Cast Iron Radio , BBC Radio 3 & iPlayer , December 27, 2017
Radio Arts Feature by Cast Iron Radio The BBC, perky in mid age, can still manage to be surprising amid the array of the familiar. On Christmas Day its programmers popped this forty-five minute feature into the schedules. It is accessible yet resounding, its interviewees the best there might be. It is best cherished with the lights turned down and the Christmas tree a-glimmer.

Producer Kate Bland has Fiona Shaw as presenter. She is the presenter as insider, with background both on the stage and directing what takes place on it. When she speaks of what light does to the actor her words have the authenticity of coming from experience.

“Illuminating the Stage” ripples with memorable quotation. “Without light there is no space” says Robert Wilson. Fiona Shaw evokes the ritual of being in the auditorium with the outside world just that, outside. Of the stage in darkness Peter Brook “it is not the darkness of the grave, it is the darkness of expectation.” Simon McBurney: “I think that theatre begins with light. The moment there is fire there is theatre.” The fire casts shadow and “that is the metaphor for the human being.”

At the Barbican Shaw describes a shaft of light that falls on Ian Bostridge as he opens “the Turn of the Screw”. “The power of the lighting designer” she says “is to turn infinite blackness into a reality that is unlike life.” Light brings time and movement to the stage. At the National Jean Kalman is astonished as a shadow appears across a cloud. A piece of spun silk is being swept across a light.

The paradox of light is that it provokes emotion for something that is so ethereal. For Peter Mumford it is the “melding of surface design and performance, the responsibility to the performance that is going to take place." Deborah Warner is unequivocal on its purpose: “you're lighting an emotional is the most exact and complex tool of all.”

The programme visits history. The leading academic authority explains that it was candles which made necessary the interval. Edward Petherbridge recalls the old lime lights at Bradford's Alhambra. Inigo Jones was the progenitor for it all. His masques of sea monsters and torch-bearers were lavish “enthralling the royals and burning through the cash”.

In a poke at controversy, which goes unremarked, Petherbridge and McBurney hail the natural light of the Globe under Mark Rylance. Martin White is next door in the Wanamaker where “everything else must do what it is told by the candles.” The Jacobeans, we learn, put ground glass into their paint for theatres.

And today. “Today stage lighting” says Shaw “is more crucial than ever - challenged by the addictive LED of screens and the private drama that sits in computers; the flamboyant lighting of our streets and shops. The world is more lit and the lighting more complicated, so that a show - a play, a dance, an opera - needs a lighting designer to make sense of the almost infinite choices.”

“Illuminating the Stage” is a marvel. It can be heard at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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