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The Cambridge introduction to scenography.

The Cambridge introduction to scenography, by Joslin McKinney and Philip Butterworth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 237 pp., $33.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-521-61232-6

Josef Svoboda stated that scenography is much more than just theatrical design: 'Scenography must draw inspiration from the play, its author, all of theatre. The scenographer must be in command of the theatre, its master. The average designer is simply not that concerned with theatre' (p. 5). The preface states that this book serves as an introduction to the 'purpose, identity and scope of scenography and its theories and concepts' and wishes to bring scenography, as an element in performance studies, to the fore. The book can advance the growing importance of research in this area of theatre by linking theory to practice. It offers a theoretical framework for reflection on theatrical design for serious students of theatre and academics.

What exactly is scenography and what distinguishes it from theatrical design? This book is subdivided into three sections and this is the question raised in the first chapter. In Southern Africa, as in Europe, the scenographic method is often applied by one person, and often that person is the director. The scenographer is a person who designs all the visual elements of a production to incorporate all the other elements of design--lighting, sound, decor, costumes and properties--into an equal and meaningfully orchestrated unit, conceptualising the scenography on the basis of an understanding of the text, the space, the performers and the role of the audience. The notion of scenography is clarified in Chapter One through consideration of mise en scene, theatre design and visual dramaturgy. The work of Pamela Howard and her book What is Scenography? (2002) are acknowledged and should form part of any study of scenography.

The second chapter gives an interesting and concise historical perspective on the practices and theories of twentieth century pioneers of scenography, from Adolphe Appia and Oskar Schlemmer to Bertolt Brecht and Robert Wilson. These historical perspectives on the authors are essential to, and are excellently incorporated into, the second part of the book.

The second part of the book examines the processes of scenography and identifies important conceptual frameworks, with the historical perspective and contemporary examples serving as background. Three chapters discuss the text as conditioner of the performance image, the recognition and realisation of space, and technology as performance. The work of the scenographic practitioner is discussed in the light of: (1) the relationship between the play text and stage images that capture the 'real' or place the emphasis on naturalism; and (2) in relation to the concept of space as creative and active force. The use of technology is not new in theatre. New ways of representing the play text and the total image of the performance by means of technology are discussed in Chapter Five.

The third part of the book is entitled: Realisation and Reception. Where the first two parts of the book concentrated on the development of scenography and important questions of production, this section of the book focuses on how scenography can lead to critical analysis. The relevant approaches that are used for performance study include semiotics and audience perception of a performance.

For me, the third part of the book is the most important. However, it is also the most undeveloped. The authors promise new ways in which scenography can be critically discussed, but the focus remains on relevant approaches that already exist in performance studies. More practical consideration of modes of implementation illuminating the process and analysis of scenography would have been a great asset to this work. A possible fourth part, making comparisons between the scenography of a play text in different styles as a case study, could have assisted in addressing this complex area.

Having said this, I feel that the authors have succeeded in dealing in an accessible way with a complex topic in this Introduction. The book is well thought through and coherently structured. I found the book both challenging and educational.


Pieter Venter

University of the Free State

[c] 2012, Pieter Venter
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Author:Venter, Pieter
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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