The RSC Production of Beauty and the Beast

When watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” I noticed several aspects of the production that I found particularly impressive.

One such aspect was the use of lighting and shadows on stage. Spotlights and floodlights were the main types of lighting used. In many of the scenes that did not take place in the Beast’s house, a relatively bright yellowy-orange light filled the stage showing there was nothing particularly important or magical about these scenes/ As soon as the audience’s attention was required to be focused on a particular character, lights would fade out and a spotlight placed on the character.

One such example of this was when Mama dies and Beauty sang a solo part. In the Beast’s house, lighting was taking to a much darker level, reflecting the magical and mysterious characteristics of the house. Once particular use of lighting in the house was very effective, the use of different coloured lights when Beauty and the Beast were eating supper. When the bowls were placed on the floor, trapped doors beneath them were opened so that floor lights could flood through the translucent bowls, giving the effect of different magical foods. One bowl lit up red, to which Beauty responded with “Oh! Strawberries!” then, as Beauty put the lid back down, the colour of the lighting changed to blue and then to green.

At the same time, the stage was slowly filling with dry ice, which had lights from different places shining into it. This dry ice gave the magical side that the scene needed, and the colouring in it added even more mystery and magic. Another effective use of lighting was the mirror ball in the room/hall of mirrors. This reflected onto the audience and made them feel more involved in the scene.

The music used in the production added a depth of atmosphere, causing slight unrest when in the Beast’s home, and a sad, emotional ambience at the death of Beauty’s mother. In the Beast’s house, a man on the balcony sang notes rather that words, backed by eastern, slightly oriental instruments. These instruments had the ability to make a strange, but somehow welcoming atmosphere feel apparent in the Beast’s house – something that was important in understanding both the setting and the character of the Beast.

The music that played during the dance in which the mother played the horse was sharp and almost violent, mirroring the movements of the horse. At one point, the chorus used large wooden sticks to bang off the floor as a way of backing up the music and adding a stronger beat, possibly shadowing the horse’s hooves as it ran.

When Beauty’s mother died, she sat on the floor and sang a classic French song that was repeated at certain points in the play. Another time repetition was used was when a woman on the balcony repeatedly sang the word “Beauty… Beauty… Beauty…” when Beauty sat alone on the stage. Both of these examples of repetition create a slightly eerie, but at the same time calming atmosphere, which made me feel rather uneasy in the audience.

The set, although rather simplistic, was highly effective, and very symbolic at times. It began with a taut cotton sheet with the front of a Parisian style house painted on. Two workbenches were at either side of the ‘door’. This sheet was pulled down, revealing the family standing on more benches, this time of different heights; the parents were in the middle, on the highest of the benches, the boys were standing on the right, slightly lower and the girls were on the left and were at the lowest level. When the family lost their wealth the benches were taken away and the backdrop pulled up, leaving an empty stage. A row of coat hangers came down from the ceiling and each family member hung up their expensive clothing. This showed it was the end of an era, and that they had to move on. The hangers going up, rather that just backwards or to the sides, showed that the life the family once had was now out of their reach and they had no way of getting back to it. This is an imaginative and cleaver way of showing the loss.

A swing then came down and the family climbed onto. It swung back and forth and as a way of illustrating the family how the family had to move far away, to the downtrodden cottage in the countryside. Having the family on the swing gave time for us to see how each of the characters were reacting to the change, I think this helped the audience to understand the characters on a more personal level. When the family got off the swing, it was onto a silky brown sheet of material that was hooked onto the edges of the stage, around 0.75m off the ground at the back, but slowly sloping down to meet the floor at the front of the stage. This was used to symbolise the mud near to the cottage – a sign of how basic what they actually had was. The chorus had crawled underneath the fabric and when the family stood on the mud, they used their arms and heads to create shapes to show the mud and gloopiness. After a time, the family lay down in the ‘mud’ and the chorus sat up, cradling the cast in their arms as a way of showing acceptance from the family and the countryside that this is how things were going to be.

When this was got rid of, a house folded up from the floor that used two panels from the floor as the roof and thing, what looked like wooden, panels for the walls. This use of thin materials for the house was a direct symbol of the family’s situation and, although the house was very simple, it had a certain fairytale-cottage-like look about it.

The Beast’s palace was far more extravagant and impressive than the family’s cottage. When the father first went into the house big bamboo sticks bowed down from the ceiling, with lights inside. This gave a striking, slightly imposing entrance to the palace and led to a circular doorway at the back of the stage that was blacked out, creating a sensation of mystery and curiosity. When Beauty went into the palace, and we saw her room, the swing that had carried to the family to the countryside had now turned into a four poster bed, with pink covers, which swung to help relax Beauty and make her feel more welcome. As it swung, the audience could see that Beauty was warming to the palace, which is something we had not seen before this scene. At one point in the play, when the Beast was feeling particularly low, he climbed a ladder on the back wall of the stage and crawled into a small compartment, only big enough for himself. The fact that he was completely alone in there shows that he wanted to be cut off from civilization, possibly because he did not feel worthy enough to be around humans in his beast-state, however the compartment was above everything so it was symbolic of how he was the supreme leader of his palace and had overall control. This helped to give us an insight into the character’s feelings at the time, which aids our understanding.

As if to show a passage of time, when Beauty returned home to the country cottage the house has gained another story and big fans decorated with painted roses were surrounding the house. The overall view of the house gave a sparkling, happy fairytale effect and showed that the family were now more comfortable in the house, that they had settled in and were gaining from the experience.

The final aspect I have chosen to look at it the costume designs. At the very start, all the family members were in white, expensive looking outfits – obviously a sign of their status and showing that they are good people. When the family had to hang up their clothes, they stayed in the undergarments they had on for a while, until after they had arrived in the countryside when they put on plain overalls. These overalls may have been a sign that, although they were not best pleased with being stuck in the countryside, they were aware that they had no choice and were willing to work for their money. Beauty did not change her clothes, and for the entirety of the play, she wore a plain – but pretty – white dress.

The witch, who was played by the same actress as who played Mama, wore an extravagant ball gown that was sparkly and dark, with a very large headdress that showed she was an important character in the story. The dress was very dark, as you would expect a witch’s clothing to be, however when the light hit it just right it glittered a lot, which showed to be lighter, which is something that is perhaps portrayed in her character.

The Beast was wearing brown rags that had hints of a goldy material in them. At times, when the light hit the fabric just right, a tiny patch shone gold and sparkly. This hidden colour shows the character of the Beast well ~ we know he doesn’t like who he is, or what he is, but we cannot escape the fact that he is of authority and high status. He wore a claw on his one hand and make up that created the physical aspects of the character. When he became a man, the rags were removed and he wore simple leggings with a chiffon type robe that showed off his muscles and body shape, emphasising the fact that he was a proper man.

When Beauty returned home late on in the play the family were dressed in bright clothing that looked far less grand – this showed that they had accepted their life and lost all sense of importance of appearance because they had found true happiness in the countryside.

Many of the different examples above give us a better insight into a character, or a place – for example, the Beast showed us that he felt isolated and alone at one point in the play simply by climbing into a compartment only big enough for him. The aspects of the play I have talked about work together in the performance to create atmospheres and to explore characters’ emotions.

An example of atmosphere being created may be how costume and music were entwined to create the sombre moment in which Beauty, wearing her pure white dress and holding the doll that symbolised her for the beginning part of the play, sing almost as a tribute to her dead mother. We are meant to feel sympathy for Beauty, and we do because she looks so pure and innocent in her dress, however if she were in a black dress this feeling may not have been stirred as our basic minds associate white with good and black with bad.

Lighting and costume also worked together well, such as in the witch’s costume. The headdress was very elaborate and when the lights shone onto her, a huge shadow fell on a section of the stage. The imposing shadow, with the spikiness and movements made me feel quite unnerved and was an impressive way of showing that she has high importance and power.

Every one of the aspects I have discussed came together in the Beast’s house. The overall effect was only created well by using suitably magical lighting, the creepy voices and instruments, a good set or in some cases using the chorus line to create the feeling of magical furniture, and costumes that gave us an insight into the character, such as Beauty’s dress or the Beast’s costume, whilst also serving well in the purpose of making the play feel alive. This mix of all the different aspects came together to create an aura of a mystical and scary palace.

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