Some Thoughts On Theatre, Set Design, and a Moment of Disconnection

I went to see the recent Queensland Theatre Company production of Tartuffe over the weekend, but this is not a review of that show. My review would run very simply: incredible work, great fun, go and fucking see it. Even if you have no idea what Tartuffe is and why Moliere is a big deal.

Hell, especially if you don’t know why Moliere is a big deal.

But what I’m still noodling about on a Tuesday morning, three days after I saw the show, is a very small slice of the overall show: set design.

There’s been a run of QTC shows with incredible sets in the last twelve months. The set for last year’s The Odd Couple was an incredible piece of work, creating an apartment in the middle of the stage that allows for a lot of dynamic movement. The set for Tartuffe is equally incredible work: the rooms and balconies of a double-story mansion on a rotating stage, allowing for five different places where scenes can be set. A set that was rich in details, from the knick-knacks to the art hung up on t he walls, to placing of doors that allowed for multiple paths of entry and exit onto the stage.

It was a fantastic set, bringing a sense of realism to the staging. Really nice work.

And I spent the first half of the play wishing it wasn’t there.

Back in ye olden days, when I taught a more diverse range of writing that I do now, I spent a lot of time trying to wedge the following idea into people’s heads before they sat down to write scripts: film simulates, theatre suggests. When you’re looking at the toolkit you’ve got for telling stories in either medium, they’re important things to keep in mind.

What this translates into, when not speaking in pithy sound-bites, is the realisation that each of these mediums has a different toolkit for evoking reality. Film relies heavily on visual details – when you point a camera at something, it captures everything in the frame and provides a rich spectrum of details for the viewer to read the story against. If you’ve got the time and the budget, you can physically take your camera and your crew to a real place and capture the actual details of being in that place. It’s not as good as actually being there, and of necessity it’s still a crafted experience because there is an art to film-making and constructing meaning with the visual language of cinema, but the strength of film as a medium is its ability to simulate reality as a kind of near-exact photocopy.

Theatre doesn’t have that. Theatre is a storytelling medium that grew around it’s limitations, which include the physical limitations of the stage and the fact that the audience will only see the action from a single direction on any given viewing. A film camera may pick up on incidental objects in a particular location, but nothing exists on a stage unless it’s put there – and so the history of theatre is filled with a larger world being suggested or evoked by a single well-chosen object that serves as a metaphoric stand-in.

Or, to put it another way, in order to kill someone in the end of your film production of Hamlet without breaking the audiences sense of belief, you need some realistic looking swords, fight choreography, blood packs, and some clever camera work to make it all look fluid and real. Fuck that up, and the audience will get distracted by the feeling that there is something a little fake in your simulation.

In order to kill people at the end of your stage production of Hamlet, you can use a stick and a length of red ribbon and everyone will still be on the edge of their seats.

You can evoke an awful lot with very little in the theatre. That is its strength. It can also be its weakness, because everything you put on the stage takes on more meaning. It’s a queue to the audience about what they should be expecting and what’s important in the performance.

And here is where I had problems with the set for Tartuffe – the first thing you see is this big, elaborate set mimicking a modern beach-side mansion.

The second thing you see is a bunch of well-dressed cast members drinking and dancing to techno as the stage rotates around, giving you a glimpse of the even more impressive sets on the far side of the turntable.

And then the dialog starts, and Moliere was a playwright active in the late 1600s. This particular translation of Tartuffe involves a lot of rhyming couplets full of clever wordplay, but it also keeps some of the particularly anachronistic aspects of the original. Which probably works fine, if you are familiar with

Moliere and know to expect that from the moment the curtain goes up. But if you don’t…

Well, he cognitive dissonance starts early, and stays around for a long, long time. There’s a wait while the play teaches you how to read what’s going on, instead of using the set to transition you into that a little more smoothly.

And after seeing Tartuffe on Saturday night, I spent Sunday at the powerhouse watching a cabaret production of Angela Carter’s The Lady in the House of Love, which used a single chair and an ornate wooden stage as its setting and used them to evoke rose-choked ruins, the countryside, an French army base, and a more. It worked spectacularly well, because everything on stage meant something and played to the strengths of theatre, using very little to create an awful lot.

None of this is intended as a slight against the Tartuffe production in any way – it remains a fantastic set and a fantastic production, and I’d recommend seeing it if you’re in the Brisbane area. I’m am focusing on a minor quibble that bugged me far more than the people I was there with, and I will freely admit that I am a grumpy theatre goer who objects to many, many things that are done on stage.

But I’m still mulling over this particular feeling of disconnection because its a useful reminder as a writer: prose, like theatre, is reliant on metaphor and suggestion to build its setting and contextualise the action that takes place there.

It’s particularly important for me this week, as I’m trying to evoke a much larger world in the novel that I’m writing with a couple of very small scenes. My first impulse is always going bigger, but bigger isn’t necessarily better here. In a metaphor-driven medium, evoking the right detail will mean more than evoking a dozen others that aren’t necessarily a good fit for the story you’re trying to tell.

And with that, I’m going to finish my coffee and get cracking on the novel for a bit.

  2 comments for “Some Thoughts On Theatre, Set Design, and a Moment of Disconnection

  1. 30/11/2016 at 6:28 AM

    I tend to agree. It took ages to come to terms with the realistic set and stylistic dialogue. That the show started with a huge abstract light and sound show made the naturalistic and realistic set design even more jarring. The feeling never quite went away. Only after I lost myself in the wonderful words did I decide to ignore the dissonance.

    I’m struggling through the play in the original language. It rhymes as strongly as the production we saw and, strangely, the rhyming gets in the way of reading it. Perhaps this says something larger about how theatre can exist in a world of film and TV. Don’t know. More beer and pondering required.

  2. 30/11/2016 at 8:42 AM

    I work with the wife of the guy who made the Tartuffe sets, as it happens.

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