Arts: Sets please, we're British

Set-designers are unsung heroes but at least the Linbury Prize helps those starting out.
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The Independent Culture
THIS SUMMER, a nightmare vision reared itself out of a lake in Austria and captured imaginations all over the world. A skeleton large enough to enfold several people in its grasp loomed over several actors scurrying across a large floating outdoor stage. One newspaper described it as "the most spectacular set ever", while several other broadsheets across Europe rushed to print photos of it. For once, the set had escaped backdrop status, and had emerged to become the actual story.

Two Britons, designer Antony McDonald and director Richard Jones, created this spectacle for Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the 1999 Bregenz Festival. However, McDonald is keen to point out their creation is an exception to the rule, and that the central paradox of most effective sets is that "very often, good design doesn't grab your attention".

That is the irony. Although people in the industry can reel off the names of influential set-designers, in the mind of the average audience member, most set-designers attract as little attention as their sets.

Last Friday was one of the few occasions when this was not the case. During a high-profile lunch, the spotlight at the National Theatre was briefly trained on the emerging generation of set-designers who had come together for the Linbury Prize for Stage Design. The biennial prize - started up in 1987 - aims to snatch four graduating students from the jaws of obscurity by presenting them with a pounds 2,500 commission and prize money ranging from pounds 1,250 to pounds 1,750.

Walking around the exhibition of stage-models shortlisted for the prize in the Lyttelton exhibition foyer is an instructive experience. Whether looking at designs for opera, theatre or ballet, you start to understand how complete each designer's vision is, and that to complete their task they must mentally direct and cast the whole production themselves.

Peter Hall, in the foreword to British Theatre Design: The Modern Age, describes how the best designs emerge when the designer is fully enmeshed in the directing process, and Antony McDonald complains about directors who think of set-design as a "service industry", and points to the increasing number of designers who - like himself - are turning to directing to complete the process implicit in creating a stage set.

The new generation of silent directors is headed by Miriam Buether, a 30-year-old graduate of Central St Martin's. Buether won this year's overall prize with her simple psychological visualisation of a new work by Didy Veldman for Rambert Dance Company, based on the seven deadly sins. Her miniature cast is ranged to one side of the design - including a female Gluttony vomiting out grass, and Pride tottering on stilts. The set itself represents an abstract Garden of Eden, which as the site of the first ever sin provides a fitting arena for the parade of vices. Buether explains that the vertical sets of blinds which enclose the set, open and close constantly to represent the shifting psychological boundaries inherent in all our notions of sinfulness.

Listening to her describe the concepts behind the set, you wonder how many of its visual codes will register. You begin to recognise the subtle layers of interpretation that function like overtones in music - unnoticed but vital. "As a country, we're not that visual," says Emma Cattell, one of the other prize-winners, who has secured a commission from English Touring Opera for her design for The Rake's Progress. "You tend only to pay attention to a set if it's bad. Even critics don't know how to notice it."

What Buether, Cattell, and the other prize-winners are certain of is that the prize will open doors that are slammed shut in the faces of too many of their peers. Increasing numbers of design courses around the country and decreasing job opportunities mean that competition is very fierce. "It's like competing in the Grand National," says Catell. Others are dropping by the wayside, but keep going, and you might just make it."

The exhibition continues at the Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank, London to 8 Jan