Monday, 11 January 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Visual vs. Textual

In theatre, is the visual equal to the textual?


I recently saw this series of tweets from the Old Vic twitter stream and it started my train of thought a-chugging.

In the UK we place a lot of importance on the text of a play; there are many 'star' playwrights throughout history whose reputation, arguably, is greater than the content of their actual work. But what importance do the visual elements of a production carry?

Reading
I read a lot of scripts as I'm part of the literary department of a theatre in London, and they get sent dozens of scripts (both requested and unsolicited) on a daily basis. I love a strong story, interesting wording or a dramatic plot line. I also love 'hearing' the writers voice.

I recently read a script that was nowhere near performance ready, yet the writers voice came through clear and strong, it was different to many scripts I'd read and I can still remember it even though I read it weeks ago, and I've looked over many more since then. The plot was surreal and unpolished, and I have my doubts as to how it would work in performance, yet the written words made me laugh out loud.

The visual element of reading doesn't go beyond what what I imagine while I'm reading. However what I look for at this stage is a strong story that allows me to visualise the action; characters that are clear and defined, and a powerful voice from the writer, one that makes me want to read more, or see more.

Image Source: outlawjimmy.com

Watching
Occasionally I will attend a rehearsed reading of a new play. Most of these are little more than script-in-hand performances, with actors sitting across the stage, or with very rudimentary blocking.

The visual here simply supports the script; allowing an audience to 'fill in the blanks' in a way. Once or twice I've seen a rehearsed reading that has been immensely powerful, and has led me to consider whether a performance would carry the same power? If the audience can 'see' what is happening, would it elevate or reduce the impact of the written word?

One example I can think of was a script in hand reading of a script by a playwright from New Zealand. There was a simple staging plan, with the actors standing centre stage while speaking, then sitting when not in a scene; the stage directions were read by one of the other cast members. As the reader described the action as the play reached its climax, the actors involved simply stood, half in shadow. When the play ended, a gentleman behind me let go a huge, whistling breath, shook his head slightly and muttered "well, that was pretty good." Part of the impact of this scene, I believe, was in the lack of the visual, meaning the audience were free to imagine the action.

Image Source: pbase.com

Highly Visual
Although, some productions, I doubt would have the same impact without a stunning visual.

The first example that springs to mind is The Nether, which I saw at The Duke Of York's Theatre last year: without such a strong and beautiful set design, I'm not sure whether a) I'd have followed the story well, or b) the play would have carried the impact it did. My boyfriend and I actually decided to walk from the theatre to Victoria station so that we could continue talking about the play without having to shout over late-night tube passengers. 
My boyfriend is a photographer, and is very interested in the use of visuals to create a story, and he found himself fully immersed in the world that The Nether created through a stunning set and lighting design.

Another example is Othello by Frantic Assembly: here it was the dynamic movement and physicality (along with another wonderful set) that supported the text. I would have probably been able to follow the story here, even without Shakespeares words.

Image Source: yxchemical.com

I'm speaking, here, about straight plays, as opposed to theatre which relies primarily on the visual, such as ballet and other forms of dance, or, to some extent, musicals. (There are lots of musicals with superb books, but I'll leave that for another conversation!)

What are your thoughts?

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