Tag Archives: White Guard

Script or Spectacle?

Over the past few weeks, various productions have got me thinking about what I value more in theatre: good writing, or a good spectacle? It’s a fairly pointless question, for the two are not mutually exclusive, but hypothetically speaking, if we could only have one or the other, which would we choose?

My mind got kicked into gear after watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Visually, it is stunning. No one would argue with that. There are also some extraordinary performances on show from Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. But Nick Dear’s script is laughable. It plods along, making absurd choices (“I’m blind you know”) which often just doesn’t feel real. In such an impressive production, however, the words come after effect. We don’t mind that emotion isn’t conveyed through language because visually and aurally we understand exactly what is happening.

And isn’t that exactly what theatre’s about? Theatre can do things that film can’t, and for this reason should be exploited. The fact that we’re watching trains rolling in and houses flying down live makes it all the more exciting, as we share the same space as this spectacle. Everyone’s talking about Frankenstein, regardless of the flabby text, because they are in awe of the show.

We know very little about Greek theatre, but one thing we do have quite a lot of information about is special effects. Artefacts show actors being winched in on cranes and bodies shuffled in on carts. Even at the dawn of theatre, then, practitioners understood the necessity of visual aids to create an impressive show.

In Shakespeare’s time, however, the emphasis was almost certainly on language. A simple stage allowed for no more than a few entrances from the gods and a reveal behind a curtain; scenes were set through dialogue and description, not set. Naturally, audiences went to see blood and guts in wars and battles, but on the whole this was a theatre of word.

So assuming great performances remain constant, which is more important? In the short-term, a spectacle will impress us more, appealing to our senses and creating maximum impact. In thirty years time, however, these performances will remain only in the minds of those who saw it (although as digital technology improves this could change). For the past century or so, spectacular performances can only be studied through basic photographs and descriptive accounts, but can never be appreciated in its entirety. A good script, however, is passed down through generations, unchanging and growing in greatness as more layers reveal themselves to us.

It’s my guess that Nick Dear’s script will not be studied in schools in the future. It’s quite possible, however, that Bruce Norris’ will. His beautifully crafted play would fit perfectly into a school syllabus and would be the same then as it is now. We can appreciate a good script on our own, in isolation, but a spectacle must be shared to be enjoyed.

But isn’t that what theatre’s about? It’s the shared experience that sets theatre apart from other art forms. And here is where the dichotomy lies. Intellectually, it feels like a well-written play should be given more praise. The months of painstaking work that are spent scribbling, crossing out and re-writing feel, on a cerebral level, to be more worthy of my attention. My brain tells me that it takes far more skill to create a script than to think about some images. But I know that’s not the case. Both are equally commendable and both warrant their place in theatre.

And here, perhaps, is a reason why we continue to return to the classics. The likes of Ibsen and Shakespeare offer us beautifully written, perfectly crafted plays which many audience members will know, allowing the director to take their own route and implant upon the words a more visual current (Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet, for example). This way, they have the benefit of already having the words and meaning, so more focus can be given to ‘interpretation’. When a play is new, this is more difficult, for the script and director will probably have worked hand-in-hand for much of the rehearsal process.

Of course, this is a pointless debate; what many practitioners try to do is fuse all aspects of theatre, and their production will be more text-based or visual-based depending on the project. But sometimes we get an infusion of the two which blows us away. I am of course taking of shows like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which still have people taking years after the event. Here we had an exquisitely written play exposed in an extraordinary production which appealed to the senses. It is no wonder it was (and remains to be) such a hit – script and spectacle melded together to create something which was nigh-on theatrical perfection. And it is in anticipation of these moments for which we go to the theatre.

Turning the Tables

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.

“The White Guard” by Mikhail Bulgakov

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Sunday 11th April 2010

Although “a prelude to another great historical story”, Andrew Upton’s new version of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” stands completely in its own right as a tale worth telling. Set in pre-Soviet Russia, the play shows the struggles of a family group fighting under the White Guard against nationalists and communists in the Ukraine, the inhabitants of which seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of a new beginning under Bolshevism.  Oddly enough, it holds particular resonance being performed in the weeks leading up to a general election, for the apathetic public sentiment expressed in Britain 2010 could not be further from the full-scale revolution occurring in Russia in 1918.

The Turbins are clearly fighting a lost cause against the Reds, but do so in the name of honour. Bulgakov does not disclose who he believes to be right or wrong, but does commend those who stand to defend their name and what they believe to be right. Even though the author was forced by Stalin’s censors to make his characters to change allegiance to the Bolsheviks at the end of the play, it seems that those who stop fighting are praised, for it means that the list of dead does not need to grow. At a pivotal moment in the play, when Daniel Flynn’s Alexei looses his life after demanding the White Guard be disbanded, it is made clear that this is one too many dead and that it is not worth fighting further if a cause is lost.

Howard Davies’ superb direction, whilst exposing the horrors of war, does at the same time show the farce of any such conflict. Much of the play is darkly comic and shows those fighting to be incompetent. Captain Viktor Myshlaevsky and Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky, played expertly by Paul Higgins and Conleth Hill respectively, are shown to be suitably barbaric in times of trouble, but at the same time can be compassionate. The only redeemable male character in the narrative is Larion Larionovich Surzhansky, played by Pip Carter, who although cowardly, does not wish to fight, and instead uses words as his weapon.

Justine Mitchell as Elena Turbin, the only woman in the play, delivers the stand out performance of the evening. Elena is a woman living in a man’s world, but it is she who is forced to make the toughest decisions and face the most difficult hardships. It is her journey that we care most about and the human aspect of this narrative which most engages the audience.

The design of the production, however, is the most cause for celebration. Bunny Christie’s set, Neil Austen’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design transport us from the Turbin’s apartment to the vast, imposing palaces at Kiev and the cramped quarters of the frontline effortlessly. The comfortable spaciousness of the flat contrasts greatly with the brutality of using a school gymnasium as army offices.

Throughout the play we are reminded that there is no telling what may lie ahead. It is out duty, however to look to the past. In what we are constantly told by the media are ‘tough times’, we need to look back in order to put our current situation into perspective and make a reasoned choice as to how to act in the future. As Leonid observes, “people are so busy fussing about tomorrow that they forget about yesterday”. And yes, Cameron, I’m looking at you.