Ten sets – ‘The Maids’ / ‘Deathwatch’, ‘Blood Wedding’, ‘Iron’, ‘Love Letters’, ‘Speed-the-Plow’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘The Servant’, ‘Old Times’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘The Father’.
‘The Maids’ / ‘Deathwatch’
I’m a great believer in Minimalism – in the sense of ‘Less is More’ as well as ‘doing more with less’. In fringe theatre we simply don’t have the resources – time or money – of mainstream theatre, so we have to work more imaginatively.
I directed Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’ and ‘Deathwatch’ as a double-bill on the same evening, with the same set working first for Madame’s elegant Parisian bedroom and later for the prison cell where Green Eyes and his fellow inmates are incarcerated.
Two flats, draped in silvery velvet material, gave a sense of luxury, and the gap between them served as the room’s window. Here, by moonlight, the sisters fantasize about being their mistress, for they envy her, and also plot to kill her with a cup of poisoned tea (seen in the foreground ).
During the interval, a hinged panel was swung round to fill the gap between the flats. As the second play started the prison Guard pulled down the drapes, revealing the prison walls beneath. The centre panel had become the cell door. He pulled the velvet cover off the huge bed to show the two hard prison beds below.
Moved round into an L shape, these became the sides of the cell, and defined the edges of the acting area. Genet’s point, it seems to me, is that the bourgeois Parisian apartment had really been a prison all along!
A really claustrophobic space, pooled in light in the middle of the stage, where the three actors moved round each other, jockeying for the position of ‘top dog’, for almost an hour.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s play is about the drive to acquire and control land in the rural Spain of the 1930’s. A young woman has to marry a landowner’s son she doesn’t really love, to link two families’ estates – but at the wedding she runs off with her former admirer, for whom she feels real passion. Two families’ honour is outraged, and the couple are pursued into the forest. The action takes place in a number of different places, so my concept for the set was to have a very simple and stark arrangement of flats, painted off-white, which could be lit with different colours to suggest different locations.
This allowed for very smooth scene changes, without the need for elaborate set dressing. A chair was taken off, a table turned slightly, the lighting faded to a different colour – and there we were in a different house, or on an outside terrace, or in a church, or deep in the forest …
A key scene takes place on the outside terrace of the Bride’s house, and to suggest this location I constructed a canopy, complete with clinging foliage and flowers, which was lowered into position. In the scenes where it wasn’t used, the canopy was pulled out of eye-line back up into the lighting rig.
I like to incorporate some moving elements into my set designs where appropriate – it’s another way of getting our limited resources to work harder.
Some sets can be constructed almost solely with light, and Rona Munro’s ‘Iron’ is one of those. It’s set in a women’s prison, and a large part of the action takes place in the visiting room, where there’s a table that Fay sits at with her daughter, constantly under the watchful eyes of the prison guards.
I wanted to give a sense of the warders walking backwards and forwards under the harsh prison lights, so I put a series of downlights to define their walkways. As the guards moved, they passed into hard pools of light, then on into darkness.
A R Gurney’s ‘Love Letters’ is an odd play, more like a rehearsed reading; as two actors usually sit side by side reading out an exchange of letters between two upper-class Americans. The correspondence spans almost forty years, and by the end the woman has died. Because it’s done by reading letters, it’s a popular production for celebrity actors, who can perform it with very little preparation.
When I came to direct the piece, I decided to put more meaning into Gurney’s words, by staging it as if the man has just come home from the woman’s funeral, and is re-reading their letters while reflecting on their lives. He read each of his letters to her as if remembering his feelings at the time, and then the woman, seated some way upstage, behind him, read her replies in the present tense, as if she was just writing them.
He was downstage in constant light, while she was left in darkness until her readings, when she was lit by a pool of softer, bluer light. The effect was that he was in the here-and-now, while she was a vision from his memory – or perhaps a ghost . . .
That transition had to be carried out in front of the audience, so I designed a ‘glass wall’ for the office, that allowed us to see the secretary as she passed behind it. This was hinged so that it could be swung round to become the shelf unit in his apartment.
The script tells that his new office is being redecorated, so we put a patch of unfinished paint on the wall, and the stage crew were dressed in painters’ white overalls for the transition. I like to think that we turned a necessary scene change into a piece of theatre in its own right.
Opening the hinged panel also allowed passage of the desk and the sofa to and from their hiding place behind the set.
I’ve designed a number of sets for Steven O’Shea’s productions – ‘Speed-the-Plow’ was also one of his.
O’Shea had written a cut-down version of Shakespeare’s play, eliminating all but the central characters of Hamlet’s immediate family.
We built a gantry, overlooking a central floor area defined by a painted cross leading to the tomb of Hamlet’s murdered father. We’ve used that well-built flight of steps in quite a few subsequent productions
I designed the lights so that small areas could be lit individually, increasing the sense of isolation of the protagonists.
‘The Servant’ is a director’s nightmare – or creative opportunity. Robin Maugham’s play is about a man who inherits money and returns from Africa to live in London. His friends find him a house to rent, and a manservant to look after him. It’s a psychological piece, where the servant gradually becomes the dominant personality.
The action takes place in the house, with scenes alternating quickly from the lounge to the bedroom, on to the kitchen, then back to the lounge. And so on …
I designed a set consisting of a fixed flat with a door, and two lightweight double-sided flats that could be rotated to present the audience with a variety of combinations – a double bed for the bedroom scenes, for example, or a cooker (and the other flat set at an angle) to give us the kitchen scenes.
With different set configurations giving three different locations in the house, and lighting to produce a different time of day in each of them, there were many possibilities available to the director. The flats were quickly rotated as required and the action proceeded without delay, avoiding the need to drag on heavy props like the double bed and the cooker.
Remember that you can see my rotating set for Pinter’s ‘Old Times’ in the January position on the ‘2014 Projects’ page.
The panel was also pivoted off-centre, so that it hid the bathroom door during Act one, and then revealed it for Act two.
As with ‘Speed-the-Plow’, which I mentioned above, the sofas, beds and table were all hidden behind the set during the Act when they were not needed.
I wanted to allow the action to flow seamlessly between locations, with an actor able to be inside a room looking out of the window, then give the audience a complete reversal of perspective by looking at the window from outside.
As part of the set, I made use of the column in the centre of the NVT upstairs stage to hang a window, which could be rotated by pushing it round as an actor looked through it. So we saw Scrooge’s back as he peered out through the panes, then as it was turned we saw him from the outside, with the scene he was looking at occupying the downstage area.
Left in either position, the window also acted as a basic set element, suggesting a wall and thus defining a room space.
I used the same technique on NVT’s 2019 production of ‘Great Expectations’. Here, the entire door frame rotated as the actors passed through from an exterior location to an interior setting.
There’s also ‘The Father’, which we did at NVT in 2019. Here the script required Andre’s flat to gradually disappear, which we achieved by blinding the audience with forward-facing lights while the stage crew removed various items from a blacked-out stage between scenes. The final scene takes place in some kind of nursing home – which may be where Andre’s been all along. I designed a hospital bed which we covered with a throw to transform it into a settee until the final reveal. None of the set changes took longer than twelve seconds.