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    Theatre of the 21st Century Essay

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    “Theatre of the 21st Century should be looking forward, not looking back. ” Discuss the above statement in relation to the play you have seen in performance and with reference to its original performance circumstances. In discussing the statement “Theatre of the 21st Century should be looking forward, not looking back”, it is necessary to consider the statement from both a modern and historical view to come to a conclusion.

    In this essay I will weigh up set, lighting, acting and props and consider how these elements relate to the production of Julius Caesar that I saw in the Donmar warehouse and how it compares to the original production in the globe. Within this essay I will also refer to the production at the Blackfriars indoor playhouse that was running simultaneously alongside the globe. I will then be able to conclude whether theatre is really looking forward in the 21st century. The Set of the production I saw of Julius Caesar was looking forward in terms of theatre.

    The set depicted the metatheatrical concept with a necessary naturalistic set. The play itself was set inside a woman’s prison, a location that itself is modern and did not exist during the original performance. An example of how this was evident is with the use of the entire room being a dull grade shade. The entrances and exits were cold grey metal doors that “clanged” when they were closed, this represented that the entire auditorium was a prison not just the stage area.

    The use of grey metal poles around the stage and cold grey flooring depicted the interior to a cell. The reason the director, Phyllida Lloyd, did this was to show her concept and to make a difficult text more accessible through modernising the production and making it relatable for the audience. This shows that the theatre is looking forward as such a setting in itself would not have been heard of in the original performance circumstances. However, you could also argue that even theatre prior to the 21st Century has been looking forward too.

    For example in the original production there was clearly a lack of interest within the production itself demonstrated in the use of a “lords room” that had a 360 degree curtain to separate itself from the play entirely. However they did attempt to use set to engage the audience as this time. This is shown through the use of a discovery space, which was a large area just behind the stage where pieces of set could have been brought on for end scenes, for example a large thrown would have been used in the final scene of the original production of Julius Caesar to depict the overall concept of power.

    This was a big deal in that time and theatre has constantly been looking forward in terms of set if you look at the Italian attempt to naturalise their theatre with the use of frescos, a famous designer of these being Sebastiano Sereno. However you could claim that the original production that I saw at the Donmar was guilty of “looking back” in terms of set. This would be shown by the use of “simple” scene changes to demonstrate when they were in the play-within-a-play. When Cassius and Brutus are in the tent discussing their plans the rest of the cast throw down a white sheet to represent the idea that they are in a tent.

    However this piece of scenery is only simple and is not naturalistic. This demonstrates an abstract use of set by simply implying what is happening, as the prisoners would be incapable of providing completely convincing props and set. This simplistic design suggests no attempt to naturalise the scene and reflects the use of backdrops used in previous times, such as the frescos, yet is even more simplistic as it has on it no design. Similarly simplicity was used in the original but this was arguably due to the issue of sightlines within the Globe theatre.

    There wouldn’t be set to suggest the final fight involving Brutus, mark Antony and their armies, instead there would be suggestions through hand held props and language within the script that suggested they were fighting. This was due to the fact that theatre was not somewhere to go and enjoy but instead was simply to be seen with the groundlings even running market places in front of the stage. However within the Jacobian Indoor theatre that was running at the same time it is important to note that there would have been use of naturalistic set, with larger pieces of set used due to it’s wing space and greater sightlines.

    In conclusion, having discussed the statement from the modern and original productions with a focus on set I can now conclude the statement is only partially true. In the modern it is clear that there is a focus on 21st century techniques and setting it in a prison really does emphasise its modern approach, however it is also clear that the modern reflects a lot of set ideas used in the time of the original production. For example the simple backdrop, although is part of the play within the play, does link to the simplistic set used in the time of the globe.

    Within the idea of lighting, the modern production used lighting as a way of highlighting the modern metatheatrical idea. The ‘guards’ to emphasize their power over the prisoners, who could have been seen therefore as their “performers”, controlled the lights. Similarly, the audience were normally in the same lighting state as the prisoners to cause a sense of involvement. However the lights were occasionally brought up on the audience to demonstrate when the prisoners were no longer performing the “play”.

    This allowed the audience to have a chance of emotional release to evaluate what they have seen and digest the complicated script. This shows that the lighting of the performance was looking forward as the idea of being so involved in terms of light state is an artuadian idea of breaking the fourth wall. However in the original production there was no chance or desire to use lighting that would encourage emotional response. This is shown as within the scrip there are often references to “break of day”, or “time to rest”, to tell the audience what time of day it is without use for lighting.

    The prevention of lighting was due to the safety hazard of the globe being built of wood and straw. However there was emotive lighting being used within the Indoor theatre where they were exploring the idea of the audience being in the dark whilst exploring with shadows, for example one designer who attempted to use lighting emotively was Sebastian Serlio in the Italian Renaissance. Lighting was used effectively in terms of the modern production through the focus being directed by spotlights. There were two spotlights used and they would be focused upon individuals as moments when they were of most importance.

    For example, although the whole cast were present for Mark Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral, it is apparent that he is the key focus with both the spotlights being on him and the general lighting being dim. This is to allow the audience to understand the key focus of the scene at the time and the dull blue shade surrounding Mark Anthony, played by Cush Jumbo, gives an indication to the mood assisting the audience to understand the text. This is contrasting to the globe where there was no attempt at lighting therefore the only way to display character importance would be for them to address the audience from the balcony.

    However, within the Jacobian indoor theatre, which was running at the same time, there was similar use of lighting to that of the modern production suggesting that it is indeed looking back in terms of lighting. For example within the Jacobian theatre there was the production of colour light to help depict mood. This would have been used for example in Caesar’s death to show sadness. The indoor theatre was also making use of Nichola Sabatini’s adjustable spotlights that would have provided the same effect as spotlights in the modern production alongside Leone De Somi’s concept of shadow to assist the mood.

    In conclusion, I believe that having discussed the statement in terms of the modern and original production that generally, except the idea of light representing metatheatre, the lighting of the production looks back. I believe the use of lighting only really includes spotlights, wash lighting and shadow within the scene were the men group to kill Caesar, and all of these are techniques that could have been employed in the original production. When considering the statement it is important to take into account acting.

    Within the modern production at the Donmar warehouse the acting was incredibly naturalistic. This is shown for example in the scene between Brutus and Cassius where the conversation about Caesar’s death is fluid and believable. The actors are able to use subtle vocals and shading of their tone to give a real genuine account of how they feel and approach the situation of Caesars death. This realistic element of the play gives a greater emotional effect as the audience are more likely o sympathise as they feel as though the character is believable and real.

    This is clearly an example of theatre moving forward as in the original production there was no sense of naturalism. The performance of the same scene would have been highly gestural and use loud vocals even though not appropriate for the scene. This was because the groundlings were talking and the Globe had an open roof therefore the actors had poor acoustics to fight with to be heard. Similarly, the poor sightlines didn’t allow for natural movements, however within the indoor theatre subtlety in voice was being explored as the audience were quieter and the acoustics were better with a closed roof.

    Another example of the modern approach to the production I saw was its Artuadian influences shown when there is a breaking of the fourth wall. This is shown in the scene in the scene where the civilians question Caesar. At this point Caesar, played by Frances Barber, sits among the audience whilst being questioned. This breaking of the actor/audience barrier causes uncertainty among the audience and it could be seen as showing the moving forward of theatre due to the fact Artaud was a modern practitioner however there are interesting parallels with the original production.

    Within the original production of the globe, in an attempt to gauge audience attention, actors would break the fourth wall when they spoke “aside” to the audience. This would have been used when the soothsayer were speaking, he would have spoken using direct address to recapture the attention of audience members who have stopped showing an interest. This technique is seen as modern however although it was defined as such when it originally was performed, it is a clear Brechtian technique.

    In conclusion, I believe that with acting there is not a sense of moving forward within theatre. Having explored the use of acting in the modern and historical production I have concluded that what would have been seen as the most modern moment acting-wise of the play (the breaking of the fourth wall) is actually taken from ideas shown in the original production of the Globe. This almost implies that all modern ideas are somewhat influenced by what has come before them, providing me with the approach that perhaps there is no possibility to move forward without out also looking back.

    The final element that I will be looking at in regards to the statement that theatre should be “looking forward” not back is that of Props. Within the modern production at the Donmar theatre the props used were vast, including the use of masks. At the very opening of the play where Caesar is addressing his people, the rest of the cast were stood at the bottom facing up at him in masks with a picture of his face on them.

    The people with the masks were stood facing upwards and moved in the exact same fashion. The masking was used to show the power of Caesar and his influence among his people. It also conceptually represents the conformity of the people within Greece however although this interpretation of the use of masks is modern, they were exceptionally essential in the original production as well. The masks would have been used to show an exaggerated facial expression to the audience due to the distance they were away.

    Acting at this point was similar to the style used in Greek performances and the masks were also a central part of theatre even then. The chorus, of around 50-200 people would wear the masks to represent the everyday person and the masks themselves were necessary to all productions with even the wearing of a mask was seen as part of a ritual, with employed servants to tie them onto the actor. These would have similarly been used when Mark Anthony is speaking at Caesars death, those watching would have worn dramatic masks displaying a “sad” emotion.

    Therefore the use of masks is not something that looks “forward”. Another point used within the modern use of prop is that of the contemporary spin. Each prop was presented differently than they usually would have been to demonstrate the modern situation. For example, they used daggers and guns instead of swords in the fight scenes. For example, when Brutus asks his soldier to help kill him instead of running into his sword he runs into his Gun and asks him to fire it.

    This presents the play in a more modern manner with the audience being more engaged as guns and knives are present within society of the 21st century whereas swords are somewhat alien to our culture so wouldn’t have been as realistic. This allows the audience to feel greater sympathy with the deaths and shows that the piece is indeed approaching theatre in a more modern manner. However, within the historical there would have been use of the traditional props. For example in the fight scenes each member of the cast would have had a sword in the original production.

    This is mainly due to the fact that due to little wing space there was only room for hand held props, therefore these had to depict the setting and place immediately. But it is important to note that at the same time within the indoor theatre due to the use of better set and wing space there was less of a need for obvious props, and the use of obvious hand held props to explain location became less and less necessary from the Globe in the 1600’s to the theatres later built, such as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Covent Garden Theatre in 1663.

    Therefore after looking at the statement from both modern and original perspectives in regards to prop I can conclude that although the props were often modernised to fit with the theme, such as the guns instead of the swords, the overall usage of props was actually surprisingly similar to that of the original performance.

    The choice to use masks was a direct link to the original production and productions of theatre by the early Greeks showing that this piece of theatre does involve “looking back” in terms of inspiration for props. In conclusion I believe that after considering the statement, “Theatre of the 21st Century should be looking forward, not looking back”, from the modern and original productions uses of acting, prop, set and lighting, that theatre cannot look forward without carrying with it elements of previous pieces of theatre.

    I believe that within historical theatre there are elements of Artaud, Brecht and although they were never defined they were always in some form present therefore in each modern idea their lays historical theatrical roots. Whilst I agree that theatre is making the most of modern multimedia techniques and is constantly moving forwards in terms of concepts and approaches, I believe that it is important for theatre to resemble essences of it’s past, such as the importance of masks and the development of light able to be used.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Theatre of the 21st Century Essay. (2018, Jul 21). Retrieved from

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