Left in the dark

This article by Mark Lawson, as part of his Theatre Studies series, which I have blogged about before, really raised a smile from me. I spend a lot of time with my younger exam level students getting them to question whether they really need the 100 blackouts they have included in their 15 minute piece, or whether the numerous tables, chairs and stage blocks that are constantly being dragged on and off, on and off and on again are pivotal to the understanding of their narrative. Eventually, and with my tongue removed from cheek, we have a meaningful discussion about dramatic tension and the narrative arc and how this works and how to best sustain it at a level they really want. They get it eventually, and never look back, with chairs banned, other than for the audience, and exploration of far more creative ways of indicating change of space or place.

Scene changes – the traffic jams of theatre

Theatres can’t keep asking us to hang about in the dark while actors move house. We may as well go to the cinema

All performers hope for applause – but the new London West End production of Uncle Vanya twice feels at severe risk of receiving a slow hand-clap. Because the play is written in four acts and Chekhov has specified a detailed different setting for each, the curtain comes down in the middle of each half and remains lowered for what seems like several minutes while the set is changed. The only consolation for audiences is that the other two transformations are able to take place before we come in and during the interval.

Although Lindsay Posner’s production contains some high-class acting – from Ken Stott, Samuel West and Anna Friel in particular – the staging has suffered indifferent notices, with particular criticism for slow pacing. I’m convinced that this sense of sluggishness is encouraged by viewers’ frustration at having to endure the theatrical equivalent of a traffic jam.

Colleagues have told me of similar complaints against the recent production of Nosferatu by the Polish company TR Warszawa at the Barbican in London, in which black-clad stage managers with head-sets regularly entered to prepare the stage for the next scene. One critic attacked its “infernally slow pace”.

The problem is that viewers literally don’t know what to do during a lengthy change-over. We are technically still within the action, our disbelief theoretically suspended, and yet are witnessing something that is clearly (and often clatteringly) factual rather than fictional. And because we don’t know the extent of the delay – timings of scene-changes, unlike those for intervals, are not listed in programmes – it’s impossible to know whether to risk beginning a conversation with a companion or – for many theatre-goers these days – to check emails or read about the latest catastrophes at the BBC on mobiles and tablets. These furniture breaks are much more disrupting to an audience than they would have been in the 19th century theatre of Chekhov or Ibsen (another playwright reluctant to use the same room for two successive acts), because the concentration and patience of viewers is increasingly shaped by the fluidity of TV or movies.

Ideally, a piece will aspire to the swift seamlessness of screen. For example, Richard Eyre, a director who has moved between theatre and film, is about to open the premiere of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Nick Dear’s play about the poets Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, in which (I noted at a preview) 28 scenes are played out during 110 minutes, smoothly flowing between locations and states of reality with a cinematic elegance. Admittedly, Eyre had the advantage over Posner’s Uncle Vanya that this play was written in the light of contemporary sensibilities, but, seeing the two shows in close proximity, it struck me that people can no longer be asked to hang about indefinitely in the dark while the cast move house.

The perfect solution is a revolve stage (the subject of an earlier piece in this series), but relatively few theatres have these. Some productions of multi-set classics have scheduled what the programme calls a “pause” (a five-minute mini-interval), in which the house lights come up. But this, too, is unsatisfying and confusing, with the gap not long enough for the consumption or removal of fluids and some theatregoers in the middle of rows inevitably stranded coming or going when the action resumes, having misjudged the duration of the interlude.

In my experience, the most successful tactic – common in America – is to project on to the safety curtain or gauze screen historical material or specially shot film relating to the play, using the break as a sort of extension of the programme. Indeed, in these financially tough times, it’s a surprise that playhouses don’t project adverts on to the frontcloth.

More fundamentally, though, we may have to change our attitude to the changing of the set in stagings of 19th-century realist writers. The reason for the dull lulls in Uncle Vanya is the assumption of director and designer that Chekhov demands an elaborate specificity of setting. Surely it would be better to use suggestive, easily manoevered scenery – a single samovar, a solo wicker chair – or there is a risk that audiences will go the cinema instead.


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