It started out as a clever idea: get away from fussy sets, concentrate attention on the actors; put on classic plays with no scenery or stage flats, with the actors up in front of simple black, grey, or brown. Then everyone started copying it, and the marketplace of ideas got knocked down and replaced by a Tesco Express. Over the years, I’ve seen Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry IV and so, so many more, all looking exactly the same. The setting could change from a blasted heath to Canterbury cathedral and the spotlights pointed at the actors would only get a bit brighter and stop flickering. All you had to do was squint a bit and everything blurred into dark grey or brown (Hamlet was the exception, going for light grey). For a rogue’s gallery, just flick through the RSC website. Or are they trying to kid us that they have no money?
What’s wrong with a little realism every now and then? The aim of theatre is to transport you to another place, and staging should reflect this. When I read the text of Romeo and Juliet, what I see in my mind is the action unfolding in and around beautiful Italian architecture, lit by a ripe yellow sun, not a few actors standing around lost in hyperspace. Granted, this is how Shakespeare did it, but he had limited resources and no other option. Professional directors of today do and if they want to pretend to be living in the 16th century, they can start wearing a ruff.
And if they feel that a play really would work better with a minimal staging, why should the backdrop be greyish-brown? Why not pink, or sky blue, or lime green? Looking through the Dulux catalogue, I see that, for the same price, these directors could have chosen Grecian garland, fragrant cloud, polar flame, nectar jewels, or seduction (a yellow so glorious I picked it, cackling, for my bedroom when we repainted it). Imagine the programme: Twelfth Night. Backdrop painted in seduction from Dulux Ltd. That’s more appropriate than grey, surely?