Signifiying Nothing

chekhov rehearsed.jpg

End of the first week of rehearsals. I’m very happy. There are hints already of extraordinary things and it’s still pretty funny. That will drain away through rehearsal until the first night when I hope the shape will be strong enough that it’ll suddenly be funny again. Chekhov’s journey through the play, which is only given through hints and implications, the tiniest of reactions and responses, is emerging very strongly in Simon Gregor’s work. The individual somewhat-satirical scenes are finding their shape and focus slowly and surely. I’m very pleased. Yesterday, we had the director Noah Birksted-Breen, a fluent Russian speaker, come in to teach Ruth Everett how to speak her brief history of the twentieth century.

The thing that’s continuing to torture and torment Simon (the director) and Bob (the designer) is costume. My note on production suggests that the stage should have an arbitrary visual relationship to the fictional world. Men could play women, old play young, black play white, but not systematically. In fact, Simon’s not doing that very much and thinks it will simply ‘baffle’ the audience. I’m not convinced, but hey. More important is the design. We do have a design that suggests a skeletal world, Chekhov seeing through the lavish opulence of an advanced consumer-capitalist world to something sparer, more desperate. So if the actors are being cast to type (sort of), and the setting is not, what of the costume?

My principle for the set was ‘a design, but no set’, in other words you can still do something but it shouldn’t represent an actual place (and shouldn’t, I think, be anything too intricate or built). How does that apply to costume? I had imagined actors wearing their own clothes. At least, you’d need them to wear clothes that are definitely not what the character is wearing. How would that work?

The Prague structuralists in the 1930s had a central principle of theatre semiotics: ‘everything on stage is a sign’.  In other words, by placing anything on stage, before an audience, under the lights, it starts signifying. A plain wooden chair suggests a home, age, comfort, decay, anything. You can’t stop things signifying.

I don’t think that’s true. If an actor stumbles over a line, or even takes a prompt, it doesn’t signify - at least, it doesn’t signify as part of the semiotic project that the show is building. If the actor dries completely, and has to be prompted through the whole show, it might well disrupt or destroy that semiotic project altogether, but it wouldn’t form part of it, because we know what is part of the show and what isn’t. I can, to some extent, discount aspects of the stage picture if I don’t think I’m supposed to be seeing it: the filigree plasterwork on the Lyric Hammersmith’s proscenium for example. I’ve seen it before, I know what it is, if the story being told on stage pays no attention to it, then nor do I. Sometimes it’s there - it was there in Neil Bartlett’s Camille for example as a sign of a doomy nineteenth-century French cultural world - and sometimes it’s not - the set for Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock drew the eye away from it.

The question, can you do something like that for costume? And would you want to? I suppose I don’t want the clothes to be ignored, which would seem odd (pretending the clothes aren’t there? Oo missus), but I don’t want the clothes to signify. They shouldn’t mean anything. They shouldn’t editorialise. It’s going to be an interesting test of the play (and also some of the ideas in my essay ‘When We Talk of Horses’). The structuralist question should be: ‘everything on stage is a sign, but do they have to signify?’