How should dinner tables be presented in the theatre?
Whilst a banal topic, the way in which tables are used on stage is one which has come to my attention over the past couple of weeks, having seen various plays in which a table is used in important scenes of the production. This made me think; what is the best way of staging a scene around which a group of people have to sit and talk? It’s not as simple as you may think.
Let me get this straight first. I am not simply talking about office desks and coffee tables in living rooms. These are straightforward arrangements which can easily be adapted for the stage. I refer of course to dinner tables, those lumbering, space-consuming wooden objects around which people sit to eat.
In the real world we arrange ourselves on all sides of the table, whether it be rectangular or circular. This, however, is not easily achieved in the theatre, for there is one minor consideration: the audience. If actors sit around all sides, then the audience won’t see their heads. If no one is seated with their backs to the audience, then are we still able to believe the scene? Now you see the dilemma.
I refer you to three case studies. The first is from a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford in 2008. As you may know, there is a banquet at the end of this play, during which there is much joviality and all the loose ends tied up – how convenient! – and of course this scene requires a table. In the aforementioned production, director Conall Morrison decided to take the ‘audience over realism’ approach, which saw one side of the table full with people and the opposite side with a few stragglers at each end. I for one have never seen anyone eat a meal in this arrangement, and this thought was on my mind for the remainder of the play.
Here is my main gripe with this format in relation to this particular production: the Courtyard Theatre has a rectangular thrust with audiences on three sides, so why the table couldn’t be put lengthways in the middle I will never know. This way the scene would have been far more realistic and every member of the audience could have seen the faces of at least one side of the table.
Perhaps worse than this, however, is what I will label the ‘side-straddle’ approach, as used recently in Laura Wade’s Posh at the Royal Court. Here we see all sides of the table used, but with those with their backs to the audience sitting ‘side-straddle’ on their chairs. To sit like this during a normal meal would mean two things. One – you would not be able to have proper conversations with those next to you, and Two – you would spill your food. Not advisable.
To give the company credit, however, they coped very well under the circumstances of having to sit around a table for the duration and did vary the way in which they sat in order to keep us focussed. Nevertheless, I have seen this technique used to far worse effect in various productions, during which I have wanted to shout at the actors for not sitting properly at the table.
The final, and best, approach would be to stage the scene as naturalistically as possible, with all four sides of the table used. Whilst the arguments against this version state that the audience cannot see actors’ faces and voices are lost to the depths of the stage, the superb production of The White Guard at the National Theatre proved that with skilled actors this is simply untrue. An entire scene was performed in this way, and not once did it seem as though speech and expression were being lost. Those with their backs to us were fully audible and when they turned to speak to their companions beside them their expressions were clearly visible. Case closed.
What are your thoughts on this issue? That, of course, is if indeed it is an issue. Have you seen approaches which have been useless? Do certain formations work better in different spaces? In any case, this much is true: it is something which should not be left until the last minute before considering. If done right, an audience fully believes what is going on and is allowed to think about character and narrative. A small wrong move, however, can make an audience want to jump on stage and throw food at everyone involved.