Minimalism is More

In the wake of York Theatre Royal’s production of The Machine Stops, unpicks the virtues of simple sets

Image: Ben Bentley

The great crisis of set design is that an audience usually only notices it if they dislike it. For centuries, theatre has been opulent; big settings and even larger audiences. You can’t think of the West End without productions featuring hundreds of performers and rotating stages coming to mind. With professional shows costing in the millions (Broadway’s Spider Man (2011) cost $17m, the most expensive production to date), it’s easy to see how important costume and set design are in theatre. However, is it all necessary to draw in the crowds?

Aspects of minimalism have always featured in theatre productions, often due to financial necessity, but the practice became popular professionally in the 1960s. The idea of a production relying on concept rather than an elaborate set peaked with Michael Bennett’s 1975 production of A Chorus Line, where the plights of Broadway dancers played out in monologues on a bare stage, apart from a single white line along the floor. This new style of formalist theatre often featured smaller productions, a surrealist story and a strong emphasis on visual imagery. Formalist theatre was all the rage, with critic Bonnie Maranca coining the term “theatre of images” to describe the rise of these slow productions, devoid of linear narrative. However, minimalism doesn’t always mean madness. While
minimalist design often seamlessly complements abstract productions which rely on monologues and bizarre imagery, this doesn’t mean that minimalism can’t work for linear, realist stories or even fantastical dramas. Especially when professional companies spend an average £200,000 a year on sets alone…
Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s production of The Machine Stops, which premiered in May 2016, returned to York this February as part of a tour to recapture E.M. Forster’s chilling eponymous short story. Despite being set in a futuristic dystopia where characters contend with miles of tunnels, aeroplanes, explosions and grassy hills, York Theatre Royal placed the production in a black box theatre, with the audience sat on a
level with the performers. A single chair surrounded by a cage-like contraption was our only image of the fantastical world that the play created – and it worked.

Image: Ben Bentley

The world has become reliant on the omnipresent Machine, where all eveyone’s needs are met without even having to leave their chair. The majority have lost their ability to live on the surface of the earth, instead living alone inside underground rooms connected throughout the world by tunnels. People communicate through a futuristic version of Skype, and share their lone longing for ideas. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world, with very opposite ideas. While Vashti is content with her life, Kuno is fuelled by a desire to see the outside world and this desire leads to the discovery of humans on the surface and the gradual collapse of the Machine itself.

A dystopian story about humanity’s reliance on technology, The Machine Stops (directed by Julie Forster) has a wide, fantastical setting within an incredibly small set. Actors Maria Grey and Adam Slynn swung across the bars, anthropomorphising the Machine by speaking in sync and hovering over Vashti’s (Ricky Butt) head throughout the play. This gave the audience a real sense of the obnoxious presence of the Machine in the characters’ everyday lives, impossible to ignore as Slynn and Grey never left the stage. By representing the Machine using actors, the fact the Machine was created by man is emphasised, along with its fallibility; a certain mortality is evident in an otherwise omnipotent force.
Lighting was incredibly important in this production, representing everything from the sunlight on Kuno’s face to the Machine’s violent destruction. The single spotlight gave the stage an unnatural feeling, representing the unnatural life the characters lived underground. A black box theatre can certainly make an audience far more aware of stagecraft when the action is happening mere feet away. Deliberate choices such as spotlights and a minimalist stage emphasise the idea that what we observe is something crafted, not stumbled upon. We aren’t flies on the wall in The Machine Stops, but spectators invited in by the director. While some could argue this isn’t the most immersive kind of theatre, the effect is palpable. When there’s only one thing to look at, where else do you look?

Image: Ben Bentley

Sure, elaborate West End sets are exciting, but productions like The Machine Stops are what place the most emphasis on the actor – and, of course, the action. What The Machine Stops truly displayed is that setting and set design are not purely synonymous. Many a theatregoer is perhaps too quick to judge plays which disregard more traditional sets and characters. Similar to John Dexer’s 1973 production of Equus at the National Theatre, The Machine Stops continues the more intriguing tradition of setting realistic stories in an unrealistic set. Equus uses actors to represent the horses, both literal and within the crazed imagination of Alan Strang. Like The Machine Stops, the actors’ roles and the setting shift as the characters fluctuate between reality and imagination; the horses are simultaneously real and conjured, much like the actors are both human and horse. Rhys Jameson’s set in The Machine Stops adds a new dimension, where the actors not only represent part of the set but also heavily interact with it. While most stagings of Equus present an almost entirely bare stage where the actors don’t leave between scenes but instead wait in the background, The Machine Stops’ cagelike structure is both the machine itself, the room and the hill Kuno describes himself climbing on the surface. In both of these plays, setting is fluid and simple; ingenious stage design is crucial to representing this.

Simple sets should not be viewed as merely a financial necessity or an unfortunate circumstance for actors to work around, but rather as a new opportunity. By giving the actors and the audience a chance to stretch their imagination, minimalist sets can become more immersive than a classic West End musical. Elaborate sets simply remove the fourth wall to allow a peek into another’s life, while a more overtly constructed scene invites us directly to observe not only a story, but also a piece of art. The Machine Stops is proof that directors and writers should not see the black box theatre as a restriction. It shows that even a dystopian fantasy can be possible with just four actors and a few metal poles. Theatre companies often declare themselves in great need of funding, and with shows costing an average of £300 000, it’s not hard to see why. However, perhaps what theatres really need is not necessarily more funding but simply a spark of imagination.

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