Color choice in theater has always been very important to me. As a visual medium, it can add a great deal to the experience, and I think you can invest a lot of medium when color is carefully chosen.
Though not as a firm rule, we stuck to a very definite color palette in Mrs. Hawking. It was partially luck, as in many things, such as the costume design, we were limited by what we were able to acquire on our budget. But as anyone who is family with my own design tendencies would notice, I am often drawn to particular colors, in particular combinations when I’m working on the production design of shows.
Mrs. Hawking is mostly focused in a limited palette of six colors, specifically set up as dichotomies: red and blue, black and white, silver and gold. It’s not the first time I’ve sampled from that selection, as I find they’re highly evocative combinations. The trick is not to necessarily make the audience understand exactly what you intended with them, but to encourage them to draw connections and notice juxtapositions.
The red and blue dichotomy, roughly indicates the upper classes versus the lower classes. Mrs. Hawking’s parlor is painted red, to indicate its richness. You only see red in the costumes of the well-to-do, respectable characters, like Lord Brockton and Mrs. Fairmont. Nathaniel even has a red cravat with his day look in the opening scene.
By contrast, the working class people wear blue. I’ve actually always considered blue to be Mary’s signature color, and she sets the tone for the rest of the play. She is the primary example in this mostly middle- and upper-class setting, but it carries over into Grace Monroe, the other explicitly working class character.
Black and white were juxtaposed against silver and gold. Black and white was about blending in, conforming to expectations. Black tuxedoes, white aprons and shirts, Mrs. Hawking’s widow’s weeds and stealth suit. The character who must, or want to, fit in, or even hide, use it to recede from notice.
Silver and gold, however, are about standing out, commanding attention. They feature in characters who have the power or the presence so that others notice them, give them the time of day. You see them mostly in the characters who are used to having some control over things, even if in the show it’s taken away. Nathaniel’s eveningwear is in a sharp silver, as the skirt of Mrs. Hawking’s ballgown, which also subtly ties them together. The silvery gray of Colchester’s coat speaks to his pretensions. Gold features in Brockton’s frock coat costume, and is a prominent tone in Sir Walter’s waistcoast. These people are using their power to command attention to themselves.
When choosing these things, it’s not so much that you are trying to get the audience to consciously pick up on all your reasoning for them. It just unifies the images before their eyes in a pleasing way, and gets them thinking about what is connected to, or contrasted with, by uses of color.