What is the world of the play?

The world of the play means a variety of things. It’s the relationships between the different characters, their personalities and the situation in which they find themselves. It’s also the social, historical and cultural context of the play when it was written – the background or setting. In a theatrical production there will also be the added context of when it is set and performed. These differences can produce layers of interest for the audience.

We’re going to look at two plays in the context of this topic, Macbeth by William Shakespeare and An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley. They’re popular plays and the context in which they were written will show what we mean by the world of the play and why it matters.

Understanding the story

Anyone setting out to direct a play needs to have a good understanding of the story, the issues the play raises, the characters and the situation at the time the play is set. They will work with their wardrobe advisors, stage management, sound, lighting and set designer to realise fully their ideas.

Usually a play is clearly set in a particular period, but when, like Shakespeare, the writer is no longer protected by copyright, it’s not unusual to see a production that gives the play a new setting. The BBC’s Macbeth on the Estate is a famous televised example of this. It uses Shakespeare’s story but with its setting moved to a modern housing estate, the statements it makes are about violence and power in modern society.

Jo Dow as Ross & David Harewood as McDuff in Macbeth On The Estate, 1997
Credit: Craig Easton