Adapting an epic novel to the stage

It can't be often that those involved in a theatrical production see their names roll up the screen in the end credits, but this final moment just confirms the suspicion that Tim Supple would rather have made his new adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children as a film rather than a stage adaptation for the RSC at the Barbican.

Certainly, bringing this novel — an epic story tracing the independence of India through the eyes of a central protagonist born at the same moment as the new state — to the stage was going to prove a challenge. A film would have allowed carefully reconstructed scenery of the period and an easy integration of archive footage to fill in the backstory. Supple eschews scenery: The set, designed by choreographer Melly Still, is just a red floor into which props are brought and banners are flown, and a central wall which can slide apart to give the stage depth, or close to provide a surface for the rear-projected video which forms the centerpiece of the production.

Located roughly midstage, the screen presents LD Bruno Poet with an increasingly familiar problem: lighting the performers while keeping both direct and reflected light off the screen. “That meant the design became largely about crosslight,” the designer notes, “though I think that's the way I would have gone with this show in any case.”

More challenging was having to keep up with the director as he staged the show largely on-the-run in the theatre. Fortunately Poet is one of the up-and-coming generation of LDs completely comfortable with automated lighting. His rig is a mixture of equipment he knows from earlier shows (including many operas in Europe and brief West End forays on Tess and Antarctica, shows which failed to enjoy long runs despite quality lighting) — Martin MAC 600 washlights, Strand Pirouettes, City Theatrical AutoYokes, DHA Digital Light Curtains, and a product new to him but of which he is now a huge fan, the Vari*Lite® VL1000 in both tungsten and arc form. The VL1000's beam-shaping shutters and indexing gobos are worked hard through the show: With no scenery onstage they often form the architecture of a scene — tight boxes framing people, giant slits of light, windows and venetian blinds — or are used as crosslights on the actors while skimming just above the floor, complementing a low-level crosslight coverage from ETC Source Fours fitted with scrollers.

Though he is grateful that the technology, controlled by the RSC's Andi Davis running a Strand 520i console, has let him play constant catch-up with Supple, he isn't convinced that it's the best way of creating great lighting. “Moving lights let us do anything, but that often means we're creating looks moment to moment, and can lose sight of an overall theme linking all of the scenes together.” However, with three-plus hours of show and countless scenes to light, he did appreciate their ability to move from pale tints for the naturalistic scenes to saturated blues and purples for the show's more abstract looks. Though he adds, “one of my favorite moments is just a big three-quarter backlight from open-white PAR cans that immediately makes it a hot Indian day.”

This evocation works better, in many ways, than the video footage that Supple intended to evoke this atmosphere. Technically, the projection is ably handled by LDI Sound Designer of the Year 2002 John Leonard of Aura Sound, presenting himself a new challenge by taking on video as well as sound design. Material was compiled from stock footage (for period backgrounds) or filmed for the production (for dream sequences), brought together, edited, and masked to the four irregularly shaped frames within the projection screen using Apple FinalCut Pro on a selection of Macintosh computers. It is replayed from a PC running MediaMation's VidShow system to four Christie Digital L6 projectors (fitted with scrollers to allow them to truly blackout under the control of the lighting desk, in turn triggered by MIDI from the video control computer). Aura's Scott George handled the video programming.

Even when the video tries to dominate, though, Zubin Varla, playing the central character-cum-narrator, proves that an actor can hold the attention of an audience, however much directors seem to doubt that in this multimedia age. That, surely is theatre. Otherwise, why not make a film? Or, ultimately, let the audience's own imagination rule completely — while reading the novel.