ARTS / From fine arts to flights of fancy: A staircase in the V & A is the inspiration for William Dudley's latest theatre set. Dalya Alberge reports

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The Independent Culture
The moment he saw the Renaissance staircase at the Victoria and Albert Museum, William Dudley, one of Britain's leading stage designers, thought it was 'entirely theatrical'. Placed against a museum wall, away from its original context, its three flights wind their way up and up to nowhere. 'Surreal,' he thought, imagining the ghosts of people who used it.

That staircase has given rise to flights of fancy in his designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which opens tomorrow. Four Renaissance staircases spiralling up out of sight look set to heighten the chaos and farce of the play.

Dudley first saw the inspiration for them 25 years ago. In a prolific career that has included designing Antony Sher's Richard III for the RSC, The Mysteries for the National Theatre, and Wagner's Ring for Bayreuth, it was not until David Thacker, director of the RSC Merry Wives, said he wanted a period set that the V&A staircase immediately sprang to mind.

It also brought back memories of a time when a career in the theatre could not have been further from his mind. Dudley was a student at St Martin's School of Art then, working towards being a professional painter, his ambition from the age of five. 'I was always drawing and painting,' he recalls. 'My childhood reading was the lives of the artists.'

But being a student in the Sixties changed all that. This was a time, he says, when there was 'intolerance' towards figurative painting (to the extent that one of his own works was vandalised with the graffiti 'but is this art?'). He was among a handful of students who felt convinced that 'there was a world of feelings and experiences' to be captured on canvas; Dudley looked to Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach for inspiration. Ironically, though, it was Auerbach who steered Dudley away from his childhood dream. Or as he puts it, 'It was Auerbach who liberated me.' He told Dudley that too many of his paintings were 'copies of Auerbach and Kossoff' and that only his design of a robotic ticket collector (for a friend's science fiction party) showed 'an unbridled freedom . . . and no attempt to be The Great Artist'. Auerbach asked if he'd done any theatre work.

Dudley was, at first, depressed. But Auerbach's comments hit the mark. As a child Dudley had often drawn sets from the gods, and as a 13-year-old had gone to Oliver five times to marvel at Sean Kenny's kinetic designs. As an adult he had also done some unpaid scenery painting on the fringe. Theatre in the Sixties was, he realised, 'exuberant . . . it had a sense of purpose, unlike the morose world of painting . . .' He enrolled at the Slade School to study stage design.

Yet he never forsook the fine arts all together: theatre design became an extension of them. Dudley draws parallels between what a theatre designer does with light and movement, and the way that Whistler, for example, bathes his Nocturnes with magical light.

In doing 'a hell of a lot of research' for each play, he recreates a period by drawing on the art, architecture and design of the time. With his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, he looked to the Victorian Richard Dadd's fairy world in the undergrowth in Fairy Feller's Masterstroke. He transferred to the stage not only its massive leaves and cobwebs but its nightmarish quality - 'a sinister-sweet nightmare from which you don't want to wake up'.

With Merry Wives, he has brought in elements of early Commedia dell'arte drawings, of the 15th and 16th centuries, and British comics, from Beano to Viz. 'I tried to get that sense of vulgarity in British humour, that zest for life, through a set that looks chaotic and perilous.' Cue that staircase . . . The museum has little information on the staircase, beyond that it was donated to them in 1909 by a collector, and that it came from a 16th-century French house in Brittany. (Dudley doubts the French lineage and the V&A is inclined to agree with him.)

Rather than recreate the original's Gothic figures or linenfold panels through carving, Dudley uses a computer to transfer the carvings into a series of rhythmic lines which the scenery painters enlarge by hand. Computer technology allows him to take risks. 'The computer has made me more bold. You don't chew a pencil for an hour, wondering whether to destroy a day's work.' Instead, he can allow his imagination to run riot.

Dudley himself rarely picks up a brush once he has completed the designs. He hasn't the time. Unlike their television and film colleagues, theatre designers, he points out, prepare not only the set, but props, costumes and lighting: for Merry Wives, he has a team of some 50 craftspeople. Among them are about nine scenery painters, who, due to a move away from more sculptural stage designs back to painted sets (dictated by lack of funding rather than fashion), are increasingly in demand.

For Dudley, scenery painters are an extension of his arm; he revels in having 'art gallery discussions on colour, light and form' with them, and laments that so few directors and critics discuss design. Film and pop videos may have sharpened audiences' eyes, but stage designs rarely get more than a passing reference in reviews - unless they're by established artists like Hockney (see offer box, below).

'Theatre critics tend to have come from a literary rather than a visual background. A set is 'good' or 'bad'. It would be nice if critics from the visual arts reported on it. After all, a set design is like a gallery installation that's not going to be around for long.'

'Merry Wives of Windsor' opens Wednesday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon Avon (0789 295623). Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 (071- 938 8500)

(Photographs omitted)