Bring on the extras. Clare Bayley on 'Mephisto' and the rise of the epic production

The miniskirt is said to be a sign of affluent times: skimpiness never catches on in times of hardship. Perhaps minimalism is the theatrical equivalent of the miniskirt - the bare stage, sparse-talking aesthetic of Beckett and the influence of Grotowski's Poor Theatre both rose to popularity during the wealthy Sixties. But now, in less prosperous times, we are seeing an explosion of large-scale theatrical extravaganzas with dozens of extras. Stephen Daldry put Equity's nose out of joint by employing non-union extras for The Kitchen. Jude Kelly uses West Yorkshire Playhouse Community Theatre members as extras, and is currently recruiting Hackney residents for the transfer of her Warren Mitchell King Lear. At the Riverside Studios, meanwhile, a young German director, Katrin Magrowitz, is presenting an ambitious production of Klaus Mann's Mephisto with a cast of 40.

The inspiration for this latest crop of epics can be attributed to Peter Stein, and blame can also be laid at his door for the current vogue for record-breaking running-times. His Julius Caesar, which came to the Edinburgh Festival in 1993, was both long and huge: 200 extras and four hours. Stein has said that the sound of feet on stage is the key to evoking the past. Whatever the discomfort caused by his Julius Caesar marathon, it was abundantly compensated for by the thrill of hearing, in the distance, the tramp of 200 pairs of boots running along the metal walkways of the Highland Exhibition Hall and then the sight of the owners of those boots crashing over the stage en masse like a breaking wave.

Seeing a stage crowded with people is aesthetically pleasurable, like looking at a well- stocked fridge, especially since stringent budgeting has accustomed us to rarely seeing more than six characters on stage. Watching it affords a sense of proxy opulence, a vicarious tingle of extravagance. David Fielding's 1993 production of Thomas Bernhard's Elizabeth II at the Gate in London played exquisitely with this conceit. The first half of the play is virtually a monologue delivered by a cantankerous old man. In the final act, dozens of extras playing guests in outlandish garb flooded the stage for a party in honour of the eponymous queen's visit. As the volume of chat rose to a deafening roar, word spread that the queen was passing in the street below. The guests rushed offstage to a balcony, whereupon the set split in two as the balcony collapsed into the street below, leaving the old man in the chilly silence of his solitude. It was a lesson in mortal loneliness made dramatically plain.

The technical management of a huge cast of extras, however, is vexatious and unpredictable. Stein is the expert and is able to employ the greatest classical actors (Gert Voss and Edith Clever) for the main roles, thereby balancing detail and mass movement. But Peter Hall came a cropper with his Julius Caesar. As Michael Billington remarked: "We are confronted by 50 Stratford amateurs who look as if they have been caught up in a parish council election rather than the assassination of a world leader."

Magrowitz clearly suffers from a similar problem. While some of her chorus scenes display a boldness you have to enjoy, the scenes of dialogue fail dismally. The fault must lie with both Magrowitz, who attempts to stylise the exchanges by playing them at half speed, and the relatively inexperienced actors. A woman behind me kept muttering "Get on with it!", and the audience ended up panting for another "big" scene.

Ultimately the frustrations of the narrative scenes undermine the enjoyment of the choreographed ones. Julius Caesar is a "play which patently needs crowds; King Lear, the tragedy of a king and his kingdom, demands bodies upon stage; but can a drama about a young actor selling out to the Nazis in prewar Germany justify such treatment? Once the suspicion arises that the extras are there to window-dress an insubstantial text, even the enjoyment of glamour evaporates, and no amount of extra bodies can bring it back.

n 'Mephisto' is at the Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-741 2255) to 15 Oct

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...