Architecture and Set Design

30 March, 2015

As someone interested in designing architectural spaces, I'm also interested in set design.

Architecture and Set Design have many parallels, many set designers begin by studying or working in architecture, and both jobs are fundamentally about the construction of physical space. They do have their differences though. Firstly, the set designer has the advantage of knowing pretty comprehensively what action will take place within the walls he builds, where the architect can only anticipate the unpredictability of human behaviour. There are also much more practical but necessary constraints on architects, like keeping the rain out and the warmth in.

This weekend I witnessed two very different stagings of two different, but not entirely dissimilar, plays. National Theatre Live streamed a chilling revival of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge to cinemas internationally on Thursday night, and on Friday evening I visited Glastonbury Abbey ruins for an open air performance of Macbeth.

In his adaptation of the 1955 tragedy about a Brooklyn long-boatsman, director and set designer Jan Versweyveld elected to strip back the setting to a minimalist rectangular bath surrounded by a clear Perspex up-stand and shelf, used by the actors as seating. A single black opening at the back of the stage provided all entrances and exits, and a single drain in the centre was a portend to the play's dramatic conclusion where blood showers down from above, drenching the cast in red and pooling within the tank. Only the dialogue and accents of the characters explained that we were observing events in Brooklyn and in which room the action was being staged. The stark set, nominated for an Olivier Award this year, ensured that the actors demanded our total attention and that the audience only focused on the important psychological detail of the story. The set was designed to selflessly provide the minimum that the action required.

By contrast, from contemporary to mediaeval, The HandleBards performance of Macbeth was staged within the ruined Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey. Rather than minimalist clean surfaces and stark lines, newly installed up-lighting illuminated the walls of the chapel and their beautiful stone carved detail. It was difficult during the performance to always remain engaged with the players where my eyes were drawn towards the three-dimensional life in the architecture around us. However, by fortune or deliberate act, of all plays to stage within the ruins of the Abbey, Macbeth is set in mediaeval Britain and in a stone castle. Distractions toward the texture and heritage of the setting added to the weight of the performance; including the distractions provided by the frequent fly-bys of the resident bats, swooping through the empty windows, helpfully increasing in their freneticism as the play headed toward its climax.

Although, wrapping myself in a blanket, watching Shakespeare's Macbeth unfold, I was also reminded of the importance that architects offer, especially when it began to rain.