From stage right to left: opening The Red Barn doors

The Red Barn ran from October 2016 to January 2017 at The National Theatre in London. Its intensity was so well constructed with such a slow release, that no room for an interval was left and the audience experienced something like never before. And although director Robert Icke managed to perfectly translate David Hare’s adaptation of the 1968 novella “La Main”, by French author Georges Simenon, what really opened eyes, pushed boundaries and closed off conservative theatre, was the dynamic set designed by Bunny Christie.

A is for Aperture – and you can see that is where Christie’s design vocabulary originated. She certainty had the tools for it, as The National Theatre has a side of stage so large, that two whole sets can be present at the same time. So Christie brought to life what was to be a very slow burn, strong narrative that needed to hold the audience’s attention when the story did not ask to. Her solution? Carts the size of the stage, pre-set before they even became visual to the audience, that move on and off as necessary. The clever bit? The scene or ‘cart’ change. Why not mimic the closure of an eye lid, the elimination of light but with sliders that move from stage right and left, up and down, allowing the focus of the audience’s gaze to take on a somewhat cinematic jump. And what energises me most about this dynamic piece is that it’s not as one would assume, automated or operated by technology. It’s raw man power, a 12-person stage crew to be exact, pushing and pulling these loaded carts into place, actors already enclosed within, making sure they hit the mark, night after night.

Image via Bunny Christie

There is an almost dollhouse effect, as actors are able to move between walls and through doors, as if the audience has been exposed to a section cut of the story. This cut in the theatre space allows for more intensity, as there is a subconscious assumption that surely, the audience make out the other half of that space. They are involved in the narrative as they are enclosed in the space with the actors. Thus Christie’s addition of the aperture closure gives the audience a moment of stepping out of the narrative, regrouping, and once again being drawn in the moment the sliders open – revealing a new scene, a new set and a new thread in the storyline.

[2] Image via Bunny Christie
Furthermore, Christie’s play with light is what adds so heavily to what both the director and writer wanted to convey. The mise-en-scene of each scene is integral to the underlying message that is being conveyed to the audience. It gives way at character qualities not always clear, to underlying emotions and to the central theme of masculinity under question. The play progresses through light, from a crepuscular dimness through to a somewhat angelic sharpness. This aligns with the narrative and strengthens the link between the set design and the direction style.

I found it all rather, moving.


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[1][2] “The Red Barn.” Bunny Christie, Accessed 18 Sept. 2017.

Reinette Roux

Reinette is a Master of Architecture student at The University of Western Australia. She enjoys doing the set and graphic design for The University Dramatic Society and has an ever so slightly concerning obsession with Instagram.

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