Major Barbara at the National

Last night, I went to see Shaw’s play Major Barbara at the National Theatre (Wikipedia, Gutenberg) along with Web Cowgirl and a few others.

It started fairly badly for me, but then that was due to my taking a while to click with Shaw’s abstractionist speechifying (I kept wondering if Lady Britomart was about to say “Your father, who as you know is a noted manufacturer of cannon”) as anything else.

Except the lighting design. The stage at the Olivier is absolutely bloody enormous, a huge black cavern of pure theatre, and in order to convey the right warm, familial, and slightly stifling atmosphere of Lady Britomart’s lounge they’d placed an Edwardian living room on a rostrum in the centre. And hung a huge practical chandelier over it, with more than a dozen lit bulbs. This would have looked OK if we’d been in the stalls, but at the back row it meant that we were looking down on the chandelier as much as on the actors, and it was really annoying.

Having practical (theatre term meaning ‘actually works the way a real one would) lights on stage is, sadly, extremely stupid. It’s a nice trick that always appeals to nontechnical directors, but it never works the way they want because real lights are nowhere near as powerful as theatre lights, and don’t light actors to be seen in any case. Rule 3 of theatre lighting runs thusly: You point the bright end at the side of the actor facing the audience. It’s something a lot of lighting designers have trouble with.

There’s a corollary to the Rules which says: Lights are not a decorative element. Like most corollaries, it’s open to debate, creative misinterpretation, and downright breakage, but fundamentally, if the audience end up looking at the lights then yer doin it wrong.

Thankfully, that only lasted for one scene, and the design of the rest of the play was absolutely superb. The bowels-of-the-machine scene, in the Undershaft works at the end, was beautifully done, with moving trusses delivering rank upon rank of artillery shells to the accompaniment of industrial noises while the scene change took place.

I know the play fairly well, but I’d forgotten just how beautifully it deals with the playfully subversive ethos of the Salvation Army (Blood and fire!) and the tension between class struggle and cooperative enterprise. (Ooh, a socio-economic paradox. We must be in a play by Shaw. And there’s a good socialist quotation to prove it. No man is good enough to be another man’s master – William Morris)

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