I never met a sparsely-decorated stage set that I didn’t like. Give me a blank backdrop, a curtain perhaps and a prop at a push and you’ve got at least one happy member of the audience before the play has even started.
And I settled into the very comfortable seat at Trafalgar Studios in London last week for Constellations and knew it was going to be a good production.
The set consisted of a raised black platform surrounded by white balloons and lights to look like white balloons. That was it. From preference, I might have edited out a few of the balloons, but they contrasted beautifully with the solid, empty black platform.
Part of the reason that pared-back set worked was the lighting design and the sound. Apart from the most obvious statements (think storm scenes; someone lighting a lamp; a bright summer’s day), I’d thought of lighting as being essentially functional. As in, the stage needs to be lit. But the less there is on the stage, the more lighting becomes almost like a prop or an additional dimension to the production.
The same with sound. There are the plot-related noises off-stage – the ring of a bell; traffic passing by; the Occupy crowd when the window is opened in Temple – and music to add to the texture of a production. But a major or minor key can round off a scene, heighten tension or act as an early indicator of what’s to come. Loud music can carry the audience and a softer tone can ease, reassure or unsettle. In short, sound plays on another sense and helps to fill in the world the director and the creative team are presenting and the actors are portraying.
Lighting and sound are clearly key parts of a fuller stage set. Not much more could have made it onto the stage in the Donmar Warehouse’s 2011 production of Inadmissible Evidence. There were props galore – and in painstaking detail – in Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man in 2013. Both of these were excellent and very different productions and both of them used lighting and sound as key parts of the production.
But my point is that lighting and sound are key parts of a sparse stage set being such a magical experience and rising above the sum of its few parts. They help to sprinkle the fairy dust that makes theatre the fabulous – and immersive – experience that it is, even when there’s so little to look at.