The Set – a Distraction or an Asset

In the last couple of weeks I have been to three plays in London. It began with Twelfth Night by Shakespeare an RSC production at the Roundhouse. This production opened with Viola emerging from a pool of water at the front of the stage. The imaginative use of the pool continued with scenes involving Malvolio and the other comic characters, who you expected at any moment to fall into its clutches. Perhaps the only disappointment was they didn’t use the pool in any of the scenes with the dishy Duke Orsino and Cesario (Viola dresses as a boy). They could have had some fun with those. But the big mystery was why the action was set in a run-down hotel. Olivia after all is supposed by a wealthy countess and Orsino is a duke, perhaps I should have bought a programme and then it might have made more sense.

I am always interested in how plays are actually staged and the physical sets. They are as important to me as the play text and the acting, it is all part of the whole experience. It can add or distract. So the second play in my recent bumper trilogy was ‘The Last of the Haussmans’ by Stephen Beresford at the National Theatre starring Julie Walters. Now this was a case of set overkill. I realise the Lyttelton stage is vast but was it necessary to completely fill it and then if that was not enough to have a central section that revolved to reveal different rooms and parts of the house? The detail was meticulous to a point of almost obsession. I found myself looking at the set rather than listening to the play, it was most definitely a distraction. In the production’s defence I would praise Rory Kinnear, his performance as the inadequate son was spectacular. Worth going to see the play for that alone.

And for my final excursion I saw Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ at the Apollo Theatre. This managed the rare combination of a fine play and a set that took you to where you should be but then did not intrude on the immaculate performances by all four main characters. David Suchet, Laurie Metcalf (Sheldon’s mother in The Big Bang Theory), Trevor White and Kyle Soller as they plunged into the maelstrom that is the Tyrone family. The theatre itself is old, built in 1901 and the seats are uncomfortable. But none of that mattered as I watched this classic ebb and flow as it draws the audience into its dark recesses of despair, dejection and endlessness. Don’t be put off, this is well worth going to see.

And if I hadn’t had enough of going to the theatre I am off again on Sunday to see ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ by Harvey Fierstein at The Menier Chocolate Factory. I saw the original production with Harvey Fierstein in the title role. So I am looking forward to seeing this new production and as an added bonus there is Sara Kestelman who I love as an actor. Roll on Sunday.