Art critics pay little attention to theatrical design, despite the prevalence of performance and installation among artists. Humphrey McQueen took advantage of the opportunities offered at Adelaide Festival 2000 to consider the treatment of the stage floor.

Installation and performance
The fourth wall is how actors speak of the side of a boxed stage that faces their audience. Audiences are more aware of the stage floor as the fourth wall on which props and performers are positioned. A diversity of sources proved more evident at Adelaide than innovation, despite the prospect of experimentation from thirty premieres. Companies from Australia, Taiwan, the USA, France, Africa, the United Kingdom, Italy and Belgium were content with stable stage surfaces on which to represent even the most chaotic of worlds. Those productions that did move beyond the stage as a realm with a given depth and width did so by the conventional additions of trapdoors, walkways and flys. The exception to every rule and generalisation was the Japanese company, Ishinha, which manufactured a floating world for Mizumachi, the water city.

The most pre-publicised work was Writing to Vermeer because of its brand label, 'Peter Greenaway'. The British film director supplied the libretto and acted as co-director for this new opera, which had premiered in Amsterdam last December. Much of the debate about this piece centered on whether Greenaway had imposed his ways of seeing on the rest of the production team. After several years of working through an ensemble, his collaborators, including the designated designer, Michael Simon, would share treatments and methods. For whatever reason, most viewers were struck by how like another Greenaway film the totality looked.

Before the music started, three women wrote on huge screens at the back of a tilted platform. These were Vermeer's wife, mother-in-law and model whose letters Greenaway invented for a libretto. What made many people tie the opera's look to his films were the multiple screens onto which eruptions of social conflict were projected. In fact, these sequences had been directed by Greenaway’s collaborator, Saskia Bokkede. For a few of the most violent interpolations, the projection occupied all of the backdrop, occasionally super-imposed on the smaller images. At other moments, a scrim acted as another screen through which we glimpsed costumed extras, bearing torches, as they criss-crossed the stage. The screens were also used to display details from Vermeer's paintings. The stage floor at first had the black-and-white diamonds from several of Vermeer’s paintings. Sometimes the screens displayed sections of the fictitious letters being written, but not enough to act as surtitles, which was just as well because their calligraphy was so mannered that its uninterrupted presence would have distracted the audience from every other visual element, not to mention from the music

In addition, the stage itself became a screen onto which words flowed like the water that eventually flooded the set after the Dutch defeat the French invaders by opening the dykes. Before then, the stage was treated as a canvas onto which dancers, singers, ink, milk, pearls, water, wine and blood were poured, both as real objects or as filmic projections. Objects descended on hooks and the chorus shifted tables and rugs around. The busy-ness was relentless, denying Greenway's claim that Vermeer depicted a domestic space of serenity. Baroque excess to little effect was the outcome of this misreading.

State Theatre South Australia combined with Bell Shakespeare to launch the latter's touring production of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death, a play which has to extract Expressionism out of Naturalism. The set certainly offered the latter with a dimly furnished front room, an all-purpose parlour. Expressionist intent could explain the spotlighted entrances which suggested that a character had moved into earshot before the others became aware of his or her presence. While these justapositions were appropriate, they could not protect the production against its pursuit of easy laughs.

Two movement pieces from Compagnie Mathilde Monnier were performed on flat, almost empty stages. pour antigone reworked the Greek legend with inclusions from the dances of Mali. The challenge of combining Classical Greek, contemporary French and transported African in no way stimulated the scenography of Annie Tolleter. The sole visual pleasure was from the play of gold and silver lights on galvanised-iron walls accept the play of. Another of this Companie's works, Le Siecle des Fous (The Century of Fools), this time choreographed by its two dancers from Burkina Faso, did not identify a designer. The three items placed on stage were thus part of the choreography, not props around which to move. As the program notes put it: 'The scenery is stark: a high stepladder as a pyramid, a piece of fabric on a small table, an empty bottle'. In both productions, the bodies moved within the distances between the floor and the reach expected from trained but not spectacular dancers.

New York's Urban Beat show Cool Heat remained in the same spatial zones as the Monnier dancers. The difference was in the energy brought to this circus of tap-rap. The staging was never other than the lighting which bathed the walls and floor with primary colours, varying their intensity as the dj and on-stage percussionist did their syncopations. The lighting sometimes carried a slight pattern which changed in conformity with the costumes. A slide recurred showing a skeletal streetscape, in black and white which complemented the theme without turning blatant.

Iets op Bach (Something about Bach) from the Belgian dance company, Les Ballets C de la B, was anarchic more than anarchist. The action took place on the roof of a public housing complex. The stage was flat but with three additonal flat areas between which the focus of the performance swung. However, the pivot of distraction proved independent of those levels. The choreography was so disarranged that if you were watching the main action you were more than likely to miss the start of the next scene which could be happening on the same plane, even just to the side of the present focal point.

Slow Love is a new Australian piece of nearly textless stagecraft performed by the Belgian group, Theatre Malpertuis. The set consisted of two perspex rooms separated by a corridor. Their back walls were screens. Different colored lights filled the interiors as the encounters between the four actors jerked back and forth. Designer Bart Clement's realisation of confined spaces through which the audience can see deserves a more substantial work, an Ibsen perhaps.

From Italy, Societas Raffaello Sanzio brought their version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with a staging by Claudia Castellucci, whose brother Romeo directed the work. Although the floor remained as one layer throughout, the stage walls were extended spatially. As the auditorium lights went down as the curtain began to bulge towards the footlights. The curtain parted to reveal a battering ram, which failed thereafter to shatter our apprehension of the fourth wall. At the start of Act II, the ram pounded the floor but with no effect on its surface.

What transformed the sense of space were stereo sound effects, noteably of a train moving from left to right and disappearing into the far distance. Relationships were also subverted by inserting a camera into the facial orifices of the actor playing Brutus and projecting those images onto a circular screen, where they reminded some viewers of  female genitals. However that may be, we all saw him speak. Anthony's oration was delivered by an actor whose damaged vocal chords were amplified. The designer called her 'stage machinery ... the equivalent of the verbal building'. The interval was made integral to the story, with the havoc of civil strife following Caesar's murder leaving the stage in ruins. For instance, the live horse in Act I returned as an equine skeleton. In Act II, such action as there was took place in the almost total darkness of a ruined theatre, which hinted at, but did not succeed in establishing a link between the auditorium in which we sat and the destroyed one on the stage. The theatricality of the first part was lost under the noise of the second. The director's notes spoke of Duchamp, Magritte and Artaud, but not of Fellini, whose influence was obvious.

Epic in proportion and ambition was The ecstatic bible, an eight-hour collaboration between Howard Barker's The Wrestling School, based in Britain, and Adelaide's Brink Productions. Design was attributed to Australian Mary Moore, aided by several specialists, including scenic artists Kerry Reid and Dean Hills. During the three years that the two companies developed the piece before coming together for rehearsals, their ideas about how to structure the stage must have been a constant variable. In the end, the action took place on three interconnected levels. Digging beneath and around the main floor was continuous before being revealed as crucial to the narrative and to its moral. The excavator is grave-digger whose death condemns the two principals to eternal life. Others beseech him to bury their dead but he cannot be diverted from his path. Everyone has grief, he observes, but few have shovels. He and other slaves emerge through a line of hatches at the front of the slopping stage, or pop up from its back. Several feet above this main performance area was a platform which ran the width of the stage. Behind it was a wall of sliding panels, usually representing a castle, into which characters disappear to die as often as they arrive to repeat the cycle. The work opens and concludes with the sound effect of swooping aircraft that causes a line of refugees to duck down, thereby extending the box stage up beyond our sight lines, as the train did to the wings in Giulio Cesare. Between the stage and this rear platform was a broad gangplank to the right, under which the musicians played. The distinct layers assisted the audience to accept that actors were not always aware of each other, and that their spatial movement could also indicate a shift in time. Yet, the layers were little more than fold-outs from a flat platform. The entire performance took place on these unvarying areas, a stability which underlined the eternal recurrence of birth, rape and slaughter of the story-line, with its Old Testament resonances. 

Production in the economic sense was at the heart of the Ishinha company's Mizumachi where life is dominated by an iron and steel works and a cotton mill. Hence, it was appropriate that the company should build its own theatre for each creation. No less surprisingly, the designers work as a team within the company around a design director, (Hayashida Yuji) and Theatre designer (Ohta Kazushi), in alliance with a lighting designer, (Kakizaki Kiyokazu), a Graphic designer, (Azuma Gaku), their two assistant designers and a construction crew of eight. With the cast of thirty-five, they discuss a script presented by the company's director and founder, Matsumoto Yukichi. In his words, they then 'draw up a theatre design while considering the location and other spatial conditions of the performance site. The construction takes about one month'. For those who have not seen one of their productions, it is necessary to emphasize that Ishinha designs and builds the stage and its machinery, not just sets to place on a pre-existing performance space. 'Thus born', Matsumoto continues, 'Ishinha's outdoor theatre is full of the spirit of play and experimentation of various kinds, so much more than established theatres'.

That promise was fulfilled by keeping every element of the stage mobile. The key was the water which achieved the fluidity that Greenaway did not allow in Vermeer, where it was channeled by directorial intent. By contrast, Mizumachi not only means ‘water city’, but was a performing space for water. Its appearance altered as the daylight faded or as the breezes entered when the sets were opened and closed to the sides. The furnace at the rear surged forward for one scene. The sets were torn apart during the Typhoon episode, a climax placed well before the ending which cleared the entire space to allow a single figure to occupy, seemingly to fill, the universe. The calm proved transfixing. Enlargement of vision by a reduction of forces surpassed the forces of nature, industry, war and art.

As the evening began, I had tried to connect the sets and the performaces to Kabuki, Noh, Butoh and Manga comics, while comparing the impact with those created under Greenaway and Barker. By Mizumachi's fourth episode, I accepted that although the Japanese traditions were present in as much as the crew and cast had been formed within that culture, the work represented a distinctive genre, beyond compare with any other, outside the inheritances of Japan as much as it was remote from the conventions of the stage as a boxed-in flat floor.

A million miles away in terms of scale, yet parallel in terms of the sources of its appeal, was Ochre and Dust where two Anangu-Pitjantjajara elders, Nura Ward and Nelli Patterson, sat on a pile of red sand shaped like Uluru and talked in their language about their lives, as a tribeswoman translated. The older women arranged gum leaves to illustrate the structure and dispersal of their people, smoothed the sand, and jabbed a stick into it to represent the atom-bomb tests. Behind them, on five shield-shaped screens, photographs of their country were being projected but no one had eyes for anything but the hands of these storytellers. Of them, it could be said, in the words on the Magritte placard that the Castellucis placed over the dead Brutus: 'This is not an actor'.