Two characters alone on a train. Well, alone in each other's presence in a railway carriage traveling from Paris to Frankfurt. One is a woman who wants to read a book, The Unexpected Man, by Paul Parsky. The other is Parsky himself, but his presence prohibits the woman from taking the book out of her bag. He, on the other hand, wonders what kind of a woman would sit on the train and not be reading a book. Will they speak to each other before the journey's end? And if so, what will they say?
This is the premise for Yasmina Reza's two-character, one-act play, The Unexpected Man, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in London, where it premiered in 1998, before moving to the West End in July of the same year. Michael Gambon played the role of The Man; Eileen Atkins, The Woman. The play was recently seen at the Promenade Theatre in New York City, with Alan Bates replacing Gambon as The Man (Gambon is pictured from the RSC production).
"All three versions have exactly the same set," notes London-based lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, who collaborated with set and costume designer Mark Thompson on this Matthew Warchus-directed production. The primary difference in the productions is that in New York the set was seen as a shallower, wider rectangle, while in London it was a longer, narrower set. This meant building a new back wall for the New York set, while the floor was simply turned from vertical to horizontal positioning (or from portrait to landscape, as in the printed page).
The back wall of the set is glass with mirror applied on the back to make it opaque. Acid-etched windows are clear and give the impression of a train car. A neon strip along the top of the wall provides a soft glow that accentuates the windows. "Other than the neon, I tried to keep light off the wall," explains Vanstone. "That's the nice thing about it: I can backlight the actors and see their reflections in the train windows. It acts like a big mirror."
The floor is also made of glass, with narrow stainless steel supports. "Mark wanted pure reflections, with no distortion," says Vanstone of the decision to use glass rather than Plexiglas. The specially laminated 4'x8' glass sheets are 3/4" thick, and were supplied by Proto Glazing Ltd. in the UK, with Justin Bere of bere:architects acting as consultant on the fabrication of the floor, and Steve Brock of Campion & Partners as structural engineer. Railway tracks in forced perspective cut across the set on an angle.
Beneath the glass floor is regular railway gravel that Vanstone found provided "a lot of texture. It is a great surface to play with and ignore the fact that the glass is there." Low crosslight from ETC Source Fours occasionally skims across the gravel, changing its complexion as the play progresses.
But, in fact, Vanstone used quite a bit of overhead light, in an attempt "not to have the light spill out of the area of the set, which is lit like an island in a black environment. We wanted the shadows to fall within the acting area."
As the 75-minute play is a series of monologues, the transitions between the speeches are important. "Some are very fluid crossfades so as not to break the action," Vanstone explains, "while others are designed to punctuate the text more." Other transitions are meant to give the idea of a train racing down the track, with Source Fours chasing to create a sense of speed, motion, and time passing.
"I could connect the two characters by linking the light, or separate and isolate them in their own pools of light, to show the distance between them," says Vanstone. "The challenge was to make the evening interesting and varied enough to support the different moods."
One solution was to add movement in the lights by using a rig of automated luminaires with six Vari superscript *Lite[R] VL6s[TM] ("I liked the lovely white light they put out," Vanstone says) and four VL5Bs[TM]. The two sources are often used in combination, with the high color temperature from the VL6s mixed with the tungsten from the VL5Bs. Not much color is used in these, just a light flesh correction in the VL6s and blue correction (L201 and 202) in the 5Bs.
The rig also includes 100 Source Fours and Source Four PARs. Vanstone added two Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers in New York, "just for fun and so I could crossfade from blue to white." Overall, the palette is restrained in the conventionals as well, ranging from Lee 075 Evening Blue, L201, 202, and 281 blue correction, to Rosco 355 Pale Violet. "I relied on gobos and various combinations to change the look," says Vanstone, who bathed Atkins in a pool of lavender light as the gravel is lit from above as a checkerboard to echo a reference to flagstones in the text.
"The play is very poetic. That frees you up to have nice, abstract lighting," Vanstone notes. "The joy of the play is that you travel with them as their minds wander over their lives and they are adrift with their memories. Your imagination has to run wild and you don't want to be locked in a realistic railway carriage."