Friday 23 November 2012

A plea for more courage in British theatre productions

Although I have lived in the UK since 1996 and frequently go to the theatre I have rarely seen exciting plays here. One reason seems to be that the country lacks brave directors who are trying out new things. There is no shortage of writers who produce fascinating scripts on topical issues. Yet, directors in the UK tend to either favour conventional set ups or a hotchpotch of disparate ideas which struggle to congeal into a consistently riveting production.

It is also not a problem with set designers. Although most sets I have seen are again more on the conventional side, it appears more a case of being restrained by directors rather than a lack of ideas. One recent play I have seen was typical for British directing. Although featuring extraordinary performances, 'Medea' at the Sherman Theatre lacked the explosive mix of spoken word and acting that is characteristic for great production. In a way, it seems to be a problem of giving actors too much space. Several times during the show, the stage was wide open without the actor actually able to 'fill' it with their acting. They were floating, or swimming in too large a bowl, as it were.

A recent play I saw at the Schaubuehne in Berlin demonstrated what I mean by 'too much space'. The director and set designer of Tolstoi's Power of Darkness filled the entire stage with a wooden board into which only narrow tunnels had been carved. The resulting impression was one of a cut-through a living quarter to monitor the inhabitants. It instantly shaped the relationship between the audience and the actors. The actors were 'watched' in their daily routines, a bit like guinea pigs. In addition, it restricted their space for movements to long stretched tunnels where they would bump into each other, and two small 'living quarters' in the centre. The effect was one of compression, forcing the actors to act within narrow confines.

Tolstoi's 'Macht der Finsternis' at Schaubuehne in Berlin

Whether this worked for other members of the audience I don't know but I did notice that it prevented the actors from 'just standing around on the stage' and hoping to garner some energy from the next line of text.

It is this tight control of the acting space that can instil life into a moribund show. In this sense wish British directors and producers would show a bit more courage sometimes. It may just make for more exciting viewing.

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