Keep watching this space: from carts to Cubism

The stage is where left becomes right and right becomes left. With its confusing sense of direction, slang and superstitions, the stage can seem like another world. But is it?

Medieval mystery plays were presented on travelling carts complete with a collapsible set featuring a strikingly metaphysical topography. On the left side of the stage, Hell was often represented as a devil’s mouth surrounded by flames, out of which demons would prance, while, on the right, Heaven showed forth its promise amid clouds and a host of angels.

Over the centuries, the stage settled down to more earthly concerns, taking up permanent residence in theatres and producing realistic sets from Shakespeare to Ibsen.

The French avant-garde of the 1920s kick-started extreme theatrical experimentation. Picasso and Cocteau created sets for Dadaist plays, with scores by Satie and choreography by Diaghilev, transforming the stage into a snapshot of an artistic counterculture which celebrated chaos, and regularly subsided into actual chaos. The 1923 performance of Tristan Tzara’s play Le Coeur à Gaz (The Gas Heart) provoked a spectacular brawl with its outlandish ballets and Cubist set design and costumes. Chief surrealist André Breton was so exercised by the production that he burst onto the stage to harangue the actors, effectively breaking the fourth wall in the wrong direction.

The Theatre of the Absurd retained this spirit of experimentation but placed it against a pared-down backdrop of sober minimalism.

Beckett stipulated that every production of his plays must follow his staging directions to the letter. The stage is not simply a setting or backdrop, but a visual and material expression of his plays’ thematic concerns. For example, Not I takes place in darkness, with simply a spotlight to highlight the actress’ mouth as she delivers an extended monologue. The stage is both presence and absence. In a similar spirit of questioning, but motivated by Marxist artistic theory, Brecht actively made use of the stage and its conventions to attempt to change the audience’s role from one of empathic engagement with characters to cool analysis, by subverting them through Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect).

Techniques such as self-referential irony and the removal of the fourth wall challenge theatre’s capacity as a means of simple representation.

However, these innovations do not redefine the stage – they are simply new ways of doing what the stage has always done. The other place where ‘left is right’ is in the mirror. A hall of mirrors; the stage can represent, deform, and reflect back upon itself. Whether it’s the Globe, a black box, or a street corner, physical stagecraft is only half the story.

We craft our own interior stage, as we laugh, cry, recoil, or try to make sense of what we see and hear in a theatre.

Our personalities, beliefs, expectations and experiences provide a shifting backdrop to what happens in front of us – they animate the space and interact with the characters.

The stage may seem like another world, but in reality it offers a perspective of our own.

PHOTO / Chris Dever