“The Play’s the Thing,” Hamlet’s ruse to guilt his uncle king Claudius for killing his father, is about the effect of words on the mind. But the play isn’t the thing that makes Game of Thrones. The mise-en-scene is. The vista, the scrim, the field of vision is what sets the stage and the TV series wouldn’t come off without it.
How else to get across the fictive continents of Westeros and Essos? The illusion of ancient kingdoms that never were relies on tableaus. The single strain of a cello playing solemnly on the sound tract helps. So do costumes, script and performance. But to take viewers to imagined terrain, to pull off an ignus fatuus of unfounded places, you need seeable phantasm. So, the play’s not the thing. Stage design is the thing. And if you have to go to remote locations like Croatia or Iceland for their imposing rock formations, moody light or forbidding skies, you do it.
All of which is nothing new to painters. How else to create illusions of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Mise-en-scene is the thing.
Giorgio de Chirico, credited as the pioneer of surrealist painting, had his own name for it: “metaphysical paintings,” referring to the fanciful, otherworldly air he gave to his picture-making. Mysterious long shadows coming from arcaded buildings in deserted squares lend a silent dreamlike quality. In “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” you see a young girl rolling a hoop down an eerily empty street of Renaissance-style buildings.
But, while the exaggerated perspective stamps the picture the stuff of dreams, there’s also a hard truth - the fatal characteristics of modern life - unfathomability and loneliness.
It’s an irony of sorts. Surrealists sought to overthrow the reality of their time by freeing images from their usual associations. Such flouting of logic was their declaration of war against the insanity of war. Yet neither the Surrealists nor the Game of Thrones provide great escapes. Seeing Salvador Dali’s pocket watches with the consistency of Camembert cheese dripping over a barren landscape in “The Persistence of Memory” through 21st century eyes - particularly in our shaky economic and terror-stressed time – turns the melting time piece into a current event.
In a similar way, seeing the sturm und drang of knights and lords plotting to claim the Iron Throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros has the familiar ring of our nightly newscasts.