The many layers needed to create theatrical magic

Making Theatre
October 11, 2002

Ibsen's Peer Gynt has played an important role in the life of Peter Mudford. The play was not only his first experience of theatre - albeit on a crackling wireless set somewhere in war-time Gloucestershire - but its central message has had an impact on his approach to every dramatic performance since. Just as Ibsen's hero peeled back the skin of a wild onion to find out what lay at its heart, Mudford proves how a similar method can be used to discover what makes every live theatrical performance tick.

Mudford's style is unique in that he writes about theatre as both an expert and a dedicated play-goer. As a professor of English, Mudford is all too aware of the difficulties students can face as they attempt to relate a play text from its book form to a performance or an opinionated newspaper review, which can appear to interpret events very differently.

To help bridge the divide between paper and practice, Mudford pares theatre back to its bare bones and exposes the essential ingredients that go into every production. In Making Theatre: From Text to Performance , Mudford demonstrates how theatre practitioners - actors, directors, lighting and costume designers and musicians - use layers of words, images and sound to build up complete works of art.

Far from being a technical account of how to rig lights or design a set on a shoestring, Making Theatre is an accessible read that examines the power of theatre to create worlds on stage that seem to end with the final curtain call but live on in the mind of the audience after they leave the auditorium. Unlike films, which can be replayed and relived in identical celluloid form, theatre, Mudford explains, owes its magic to a combination of skill and chance; every performance is a one-off fraught with a dangerous excitement and is a direct result of a complex chain of reactions between the performers, text and audience.

Mudford admits early on that his opinions are limited to his own experience, but goes on to draw from a wide-ranging variety of texts, from Shakespeare to Alan Ayckbourn to Cole Porter - even Andrew Lloyd Webber features during a discussion of musicals.

The first section examines the impact of the spoken - or sometimes unspoken - word, and the author includes extracts from famous texts and memorable anecdotes from classic performances to help illustrate his point. Mudford's love of British theatre and home-grown talent is clear - Ralph Richardson as Peer Gynt is a particular favourite - but his account is broad enough to include productions from the other side of the Atlantic.

Part two examines the importance of vision and gives both credit and a voice to the ranks of costume, set and lighting designers behind the final polished performance.

The third and final chapter looks at music and its relationship to the other elements at work in the production, from the role of songs in Shakespeare to the musical rhythms inherent in every text.

Mudford's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. From the thrill experienced as the lights dim before a play begins, to the unseen forces that lead us to erupt with applause as the curtain falls, Making Theatre is a rigorous and compelling analysis of the forces at work behind theatre practice today.

Jennifer Currie is a journalist interested in the theatre.

Making Theatre: From Text to Performance

Author - Peter Mudford
ISBN - 0 485 11551 4 and 12158 1
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 236

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