A Change of Scene

Originally written for Exeunt.

Sitting folded origami-like in my seat in the balcony of the Royal Court, I can’t fight a certain nagging irritation at the peripheries of my perception. Captivating as its disconnected scenes are, there’s something distracting about Love and Information, Caryl Churchill’s new piece about the knowledge onslaught of the digital age. Or, more accurately, it’s the lack of distraction that becomes distracting in itself. Staged in Miriam Buether’s open-sided white cube of a set, each of Churchill’s 57 miniature plays is punctuated by a blackout, during which cast members and props are swiftly, invisibly switched. Each scene is surgically removed with such precision that not even a scar remains.

It’s a dizzying feat of stage management, but in its very invisibility it attracts attention. Doing away with the creaking, carefully ignored dragging on and off of props by stage hands and cast members, the production instead leaves a gaping black hole into which our latent anxieties about the craft of the stage are helplessly sucked. It might be seen as an inversion of the effect of Mike Leigh’s Grief at the National Theatre last year, in which tiny tweaks to the meticulously naturalistic set were made with unapologetic conspicuousness. Only when pronounced in either its presence or absence, it would seem, does the inherently awkward scene change impinge on the audience’s consciousness.

The scene change, as a convention, is a culturally conditioned blind spot in the illusion of representational theatre, an unseemly blip that we as an audience collectively ignore. We can handle a table being spirited in by black-clad figures in semi-darkness, or characters suddenly, inexplicably transporting chairs off with them upon their exit; this is all part of a game whose rules we are smug in the knowledge of. We know how this works. It’s the disruption of those rules and thus the unveiling of the game that causes discomfort, a discomfort that might fall under theatre academic Nicholas Ridout’s diagnosis of the “ontological queasiness” that theatre is capable of producing.

Much like Ridout’s description of the unsettling experience of a face-to-face encounter during a performance, a break in the conventions of the scene change can cause an uncertain lurch, a disconnect between the accepted illusion and the reality behind it. We’re aware not only that this isn’t real, which we knew all along even if we’d suppressed that knowledge, but that we have been willing participants in the illusion. What we’d ignored is suddenly impossible to ignore, either in its overt interference or its glaring absence. To take the resulting discomfort a step further, it might be suggested, to stick with Ridout, that our blushing reaction is caused by an acknowledgement of the economic relations at play: we’ve paid for people to shift the set around and agreed an unspoken contract to pretend that they’re not there.

So we could just see these odd dislocations as inadvertent slip-ups, of over-efficiency in the case of Love and Information and of sheer clumsiness in Grief, slip-ups that throw open the true nature of the economic exchange upon which theatre is based. But the more I think about these two examples, the more I wonder if there might be more to the simple scene change than a necessary movement of props that can choose to either conceal or expose its seams.

While at the time of watching Grief the constant to-ing and fro-ing of stage hands was a frustrating distraction and the small changes it was all in aid of seemed to be a hint that Leigh had become more accustomed to the cutting room than the stage, in retrospect it acquires more significance. Why construct such a perfectly observed sphere of naturalism, down to the last precisely placed photo frame, just to smash that illusion apart with the intrusion of backstage mechanisms?

Assuming, as I think good criticism should, that creative choices have been made for a reason, it is perhaps more productive to think of these intrusions as a deliberate jolting of the hermetically sealed suburbia in which Leigh’s protagonists exist. The changing of a vase of flowers or the tidying of a pile of newspapers, alterations so small they are laughable, could in this context be read as a comment on the essentially unchanging atmosphere of this household, a decaying stasis that is at the heart of the piece. These tiny adjustments mock the fatal lack of any real transformation. Scene change, if interpreted thus, is thematically enmeshed with scene; stagecraft reflects the content of the stage.

Likewise, the dazzling smoothness of Love and Information’s transitions would seem, when investigated in conjunction with the piece as a whole, to have a guiding rationale. Buether’s minimal container of a stage, with its clinical white glow, recalls the screen of a computer or smartphone; as actors and props appear and disappear with a magically seamless lack of fuss, the experience of viewing is strikingly similar to the experience of clicking through videos or apps. What we are witnessing is a series of downloads in an age of unlimited digital information.

These are striking but certainly not solitary examples. It would be naive and potentially insulting to suggest that no more creative thought is invested in the transition between scenes beyond which piece of furniture needs to be shifted where. But perhaps from a critical perspective, when we encounter the humble scene change, we ought to start considering this seemingly unremarkable feature of the stage as something that might alter more than just the props or signified location – as something that has the power to truly change and shape the situation being presented.