Spare us the nudity and the collapsing set...

Jessica Lange was once interviewed about the film version of Beth Henle y's Crimes of the Heart. Asked if there should have been someone around to stop the movie hurtling over the top, she replied, "You mean the taste patrol?" Thi s autumn the patrol will be out in force as audiences pour in through the doors of theatres across the l and. The new season will bring six versions of Macbeth, two Sondheims, and work by Wole Soyinka, Clifford Odets and Dennis Potter. In among the bold, the brig ht and the brill iant, however, there will be the inevitable, stale, second-hand stuff in which dim or despairing directors resort to tired old devices to wring a reaction out of an audience. The line between convention and cliche is perilously thin. At what point does s tyle become stultifying? When does stagecraft become merely stagey? David Bened ict fingers some good ideas that are, so the cliche goes, well past their sell- by date...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Design

Collapsible sets: There's a feeling abroad that if the set doesn't fall apart then it isn't doing its job. Ian MacNeil did it brilliantly in An Inspector Calls, it was impressive in Absolute Hell, but the disintegration of the set in the Broadway transfer of the National Theatre's Les Parents Terribles is noisy, takes for ever and looks hackneyed.

Raked sets: Richard Hudson pulled off a considerable coup with his vertiginously raked set in Too Clever By Half. A neat visual statement on the world of the play, great to look at, and a boon for the actors' osteopaths. Since then everyone has done it. The recent RSC King Lear had a different cast nearly every night thanks to injuries induced by the steep rake.

Framed sets: Director-designer Philip Prowse nicked the idea of surrounding the stage with a gilt picture frame from an Italian opera production. Any number of people have copied the idea.

Muddy sets: Earth covered stages have become tiresome. These days they illustrate a unique three-in-one: a connection with the "real world", a sense of "integrity" and proof of the director's training in Poland. Actors end up covered in mud and look as if they've fought in the Somme (cf Sean Mathias's Uncle Vanya).

Paper sets: Most prevalent in revivals of Sheridan and plays of that era where the furniture is papered with newsprint to point out that the play is about tittle-tattle.

Symbolism

Directors often resort to quick tricks "for added depth" rather than develop a coherent structure of images for the entire play. Key images massively overused include:

Death: a portentous figure usually stalking about dressed in a hooded black cape carrying a scythe, aka Rent-a-Bergman.

Innocence: a little girl, dressed in white, meandering around for no apparent reason. (A repeated figure in opera stagings.)

Music

The tingle factor: Cinema is notorious for its sentimental use of classics - consider the sob-effect of Samuel Barber's Adagio in Platoon - but theatre is often no better. Directors manipulate audiences with moving, extant music rather than relying on the play itself. In The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, Theatre de Complicite accompanied the final image with Arvo Part's remarkable Fratres, but its use was vindicated by the considerable role of the music throughout the show. Budgetary considerations aside, there are any number of gifted theatre composers - Jason Carr, Stephen Warbeck, Jonathan Dove among them - so unless reference is made to specific works, why resort to existing music? Sadness, a startling piece at this year's LIFT festival, was marred by the cheap use of Pachelbel's infamous Canon (one of the Classical Top Ten).

The following pieces should be banned: Elgar's Nimrod, Albinoni's Adagio, and Nat King Cole singing Stardust, currently to be heard in Monsieur Amilcar.

Playwriting

Musts to avoid...

Child abuse: An important subject unnecessarily roped in as the root cause of every conceivable problem. Even Ayckbourn (the world's second most performed playwright after Shakespeare) is not immune. He dragged it into Wildest Dreams.

Gay men and the Eurovision Song Contest: If anyone plans to write Congratulations!, think again. Eurovision and Boom-bang-a-bang were more than enough.

Nudity: Every gay play seems to find nudity essential, Burning Blue being the latest culprit. It's as if the audience is being offered a "Thank you for coming" present. This phenomenon has been nailed down in the spoof off-Broadway play Cute Boys in Their Underpants about putting on a gay play.

Pinteresque plays: Pinter does them well. No one else does.

The male menopause play: In which a young girl falls for a 50-year-old man who is a tortured alcoholic "but I love him".

Lousy exposition: Plays in which one character turns to another with the words "Of course, you know that... " and proceeds to tell them everything they already know so as to inform the audience. This may be necessary, but there is no excuse for doing it badly.

Dreams: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again" was a terrific opening to Rebecca, but dreams are not necessarily interesting. They are usually a cheap way of allowing inarticulate characters (and playwrights) to give voice to something more high-flown.

Lighting

Pencil spotlight: Fine, but not merely to isloate interior monologues

Blue light: There is more to indicating the past than using a blue gel, eg Sam Mendes's The Glass Menagerie.

Glitterball: To be resisted at all times.

Stroboscope: See above.

Leitmotifs

Supermarket trolleys: Often a bid for "significance" when pushed by Bosnian- style refugees (cf Max Stafford-Clark's King Lear and David Thacker's Julius Caesar). Also spotted, and regretted, in Polly Teale's production of Babies and Tim Luscombe's Blackpool-style Volpone.

Leather costumes: Instant fascism.

Casting

Against the grain: All efforts to avoid typecasting are to be applauded, but wacky casting for the sake of it is something else. Do we want to see the comedian Eddie Izzard play Edward II again?

Integrated casting: Too often someone's idea of integrated casting is casting black actors in victim roles, eg Antonio in Twelfth Night because he is possibly a gay outcast. The logical conclusion is a black Shylock, eg the Peter Sellars version.

Acting

Chickening out: Actors killing scenes by turning away from who ever they are talking to on stage, supposedly in anguish, and speaking to the wall.

Upstaging the text: Virtuoso players growing bored in long runs by taking a simple line like "pass the sugar" and securing a laugh by doing a double- take or simply raising an eyebrow at the audience (cf Maggie Smith in The Importance of Being Earnest), often during other people's lines.

Directing

Shakespearian speeches turned into rap: The Peter Sellars Merchant of Venice had Portia and Nerissa as rapping black dudes and in Michael Bogdanov's The Winter's Tale, Father Time's long speech became a rap, rendering it all but unintelligible.

Accents: Revivals of German plays in which everyone in a Bavarian village speaks with an Irish accent, eg virtually every production at the Gate Theatre.

Curtain Calls

Choreographed: Directors often turn plays around by inserting a jolly knees-up at the end of the play. A few seasons ago it looked as if this idea was written into RSC directors' contracts. The most thrilling piece of staging in Oliver! is when the actors join hands and rush forward to the front of the stage at which point you realise what you have been missing for the past two hours.

Comments