Thursday 27 February 2014

Designers: the British dramaturg

[delayed follow-up to Properly Revisited]

What I want to talk about today is *how* texts get “served” on the British stage these days.

I think I first attempted a macro-description of The Style With No Name (in which plays are staged) in my 2010 review of Bijan Sheibani’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s rather twee play Euridyce. In my review I wanted to try to get to grips with what sort of “style” the show was, because it was quite a prevalent style and yet we didn’t really seem to have a word for it:

“’s taken me a while to formulate this idea because the acting in such productions errs toward the sort-of naturalistic. At least, there seems to be a degree of “psychological realism” behind the performances... So in that respect, it looks like it’s “serving the text”, yes?

“But then there’s the design. And this often tends not to be naturalistic, per se. As often as not, there won’t be any “set” at all. Or else the playing space will be an artfully constructed kind of symbolic space – think of the long wooden trough for Sheibani’s production of Our Class at the NT, or perhaps the mostly undressed expanses of stage used in National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.

“[It looks like] a cross between expedient economising (building barely any set, or just having a nicely made floor is presumably cheaper (and more practical on tour) than having half a dozen elaborately detailed model interiors relying on lengthy installation, a revolve, or fly-tower. These hardly “draw any attention to themselves” at all. This sort of bare-stage approach looks like it is [edit: or is understood as...] “serving the text” – at least to the extent that there’s not a design *concept* “drawing attention to *itself*” (and thus – so the thinking might go – away from the all-important text).”

And I’m quite interested to know what we actually call that. It’s a style that’s been pretty current for as long as I’ve been going to the theatre (basically 1997). [Thanks to The Internet, it seems nigh-on impossible to turn up images from back then, so let’s consider recent examples...]

The Vertical Hour:

Off The Endz:

The Knot of the Heart:


The One:

What I take from these pictures is the following:

What we think of as “naturalism” doesn’t actually look in the least bit “natural”, does it?

Isn’t the dominant “style” of British theatre now seems to be a strange sort of mish-mash of a tonne of elements from the last seventy or more years, all dumped on top of each other? I have no issue with this, except that it’s left us at a loss as to how to actually talk about what sort of style a production (or even a design) is. No, I agree: “really great/accurate pigeon-holes” are still pigeon-holes. And pigeon-holes aren’t the best things in the world. But that’s not really the object of this exercise. It just seems incredibly strange that we don’t have a fit-for-purpose vocabulary for describing the sort of theatre that happens on our stages. Maybe “theatre” is enough on its own. But is it? People writing about these productions seem to end up describing them using terms more-or-less at random.

We think of something like Off The Endz as being a “naturalistic play”, right? And yet the set (as far as I remember it) was kitchen units standing starkly in blackness. I don’t remember it having any walls (until the end when the kitchen units were flown/trolleyed out). Or, more recently, The Pass: again ostensibly a “naturalistic play” and yet it was played in traverse in three “hotel rooms” that had astro-turf floors. I think I subconsciously think of this style as “naturalism-but...” or “naturalism-and...”. In terms of lineage, I’m not sure I know where it comes from. My guess is that from one direction it is a direct result of that visit by the Berliner Ensemble to London in 1958. I’ve joked before about the idea that when the British borrow, they tend to do so visually, and almost content-free – from all the principles and all the dramaturgical thinking behind Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble the British took the idea that we could have different sets.

But it’s inaccurate to credit it to the Berliner Ensemble visit, because Peter Hall’s Godot (with a design based on the original by the French director Roger Blin?) had already happened. Granted, Beckett is pretty stipulate-y (and having been living on the mainland must have seen all sorts).

And looking further back, there’s also Britain’s folk memory of The Globe and the Medieval Mystery Plays before it – basically as Ur-bare-stage as the amphitheatres of the Greeks. I don’t imagine we’re special in this, but it’s interesting that the further you look back the more theatre abandons any pretence at mimesis/realism/”getting-it-right” in favour of an uncompromising drive to tell whatever fantastical story it fancies however it damn well pleases. An approach that still largely informs the work of nineties alt-theatre companies like Kneehigh and Improbable (most obviously).

Having acknowledged that we have a weird language-gap when it comes to describing the currently ascendant style we use for presenting plays on the modern British stage (think maybe The Knot of the Heart, or Chimerica), what I really want to talk about is the role that I think design plays in all this.


I’d like to propose an idea: the designer is the unacknowledged dramaturg of British theatre. I think it’s something I’ve been gradually coming to believe over the last few years, but now it feels like an idea worth saying out loud.

I am thinking of the German sense of the word “dramaturg”, both in its incarnations of “building dramaturg” and “project dramaturg”. The British barely ever have a remotely equivalent job credited on productions, and, when they do, rarely does the dramaturg wield anything like the same acknowledged power or influence. In Germany they think of the dramaturg as the “in-house critic”. Or the “philosophy and political science department” of a production. The dramaturg is also kind of in charge of the context through/in which a play is approached/understood.

I would argue that in Britain this position falls to the designer.

Because, as I have suggested, Britain – counter-intuitively – actually has quite a “visual” culture. It’s not a very *developed* visual culture, but I think it is powerful. Perhaps rather than “has a visual culture” I mean “we’re pretty superficial”. What we see when we look at a play on stage *seriously* influences how we think about it as a piece of theatre. Perhaps this is true of any theatregoing culture. And, what we see when we look at stages are a series of signs and shorthands – either intentionally, or intuitively.

Something that fascinates me at the moment is the extent to which some of these have been absolutely absorbed – see the examples of “naturalism” above – and some haven’t. (As an aside: it strikes me as fascinating, for example, that you can take all the walls away from an ostensibly naturalistic play like The One and it still be understood to be taking place in the real world, while something like Katie Mitchell’s Trojan Women can be held up by the mainstream press as all kinds of obscure when it has a totally 100% realistic set (apart from, y’know, the massive wall missing at the front which means we can see into the room).)

What also seems fascinating is the extent to which a snappy design can completely alter our sense of a play’s genre or *modernity*, perhaps. Consider Tom Scutt’s superlative design for Constellations (of which I’ve only seen photos, but even so...). The very fact of its buoyancy and lightness *must* have had a massive effect on what it felt like to watch that play. Or Johannes Schütz’s design for Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters; if it hadn’t also been for the superlative acting and the brilliant new version of the text, practically could have been the whole show.

Given the absence of political and aesthetic essays or manifestos in our theatre programmes (hell, in our whole theatre *culture*, give or take), I would argue it falls to the designer to fulfil that entire function for an audience. To tell them, not only where a play is set *in the world of the play*, but also within our theatre culture, and indeed within a wider social and political culture.


Chris Goode said...

This is really interesting, Andrew, and there's a lot that appeals in the thesis: I just want to question the way it's framed. I sort of wish the two halves of this post spoke more to each other, and that both also spoke more to your previous post on the dredded embedded.

In what you describe in the second half of your post, I'm certain you're on to somethng, but it's odd to me that in the first half you're very specific about a certain stylistic / aesthetic lineage which has particular characteristics that it's very useful to see described and analysed. But given the accuracy of that as a way of taking about a particular (albeit dominant) niche, it seems like a bit of a jump into talking about what the designer does in "British theatre". I think your analysis is pertinent to the niche you're talking about, but it's not adequate as a means of reaching the big picture of "British theatre", so for me the idea that designer-as-dramaturg is a distinctive characteristic of our national stage is, to say the least, inflationary.

But that's by-the-by, in a way; the more important jump is the one that ignores everything you so brilliantly said regarding the insights that arise from embedded practice, and the ways in which work stems from particular relationships and the contingencies thereof. If I think of the four designers I've worked with most frequently or extensively over the past decade or so, I'd say two of them think about and respond to "text" (not necessarily written text) and to ideas about meeting or contacting audiences in a way that absolutely merits the sort of dramaturgical tag you're proposing; the other two essentially don't. I'm sure all four of them would recognize the span of tendencies that they all individually represent, but my suspicion is that if we were talking about identification rather than recognition, their sign-up to your thesis, across the board, would be 50/50.

I say this not to be discouraging in the light of a very useful and interesting provocation, but because I think equally interesting, or even more interesting, things happen when we can stop talking about national characteristics and start creating high-resolution pictures of how work is actually made, through what kinds of conversation and what measures of reflective praxis. (Which is only partly to state, of course, the bleedin obvious: that most British theatre does not look like the British theatre you're attempting to describe above the join in your post.)

So, there we are. There's definitely something here, you're describing something real, but I feel dubious about the widescreen terms in which you're making that description.

End of 2p-worth.


Andrew Haydon said...


No. I think you're absolutely spot-on. Basically this is two totally different pieces (it was three before I cut a page of generalities about 'New Writing'). And I have done exactly that thing of conflating "British Theatre" with *some of the theatre made in Britain*. Which is stupid, since it's a tendency, as we've discussed, that makes me hopping mad when anyone else does it, so thank you for calling me out on it. A useful correction, I think.

Unknown said...

Hi Andrew,
Re: the 1st half Ultz's Jocelyn Herbert lecture (from 2012?) on Design and Taste addressed this from another angle, by critiquing the tendency of designers and directors to borrow the signifiers of e.g. Brecht and Pina Bausch, but in such a way as to hollow them out, e.g. carnations on the floor, but not where they'll actually get trodden on, therefore preventing them from being able to generate and accrue meaning in the performance. I don't think he explicitly said it, but it was very clear that he was also talking about visual concepts which were developed by ensembles which included designers and were then being borrowed by a designer who was hired by a director in the conventional 'Brit theatre' way of doing things. That might be a way of framing the kind of 'naturalism and . . .' style because the result is a show which is being acted in the conceptual framework of realism because that's what's happening in the rehearsal room, and designed by (worst case scenario) flicking through Theater Heute because that's what;s happening in the designer's studio. And these two places are never in the same place, so you get a production which is 'one thing and another thing'. Perhaps this is simply stating the bleeding obvious.
In terms of history, I would guess that this has roots in the partnership of Peter Hall and John Bury: Hall borrowing the visual/conceptual approach developed by Bury with Theatre Workshop, and grafting it onto a very differently conceived kind of acting..?