ARTS / Show People: Ian MacNeil: The joy of sets

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The Independent Culture
FOR A designer, Ian MacNeil is sceptical about the importance of looks: 'Aesthetics are of limited interest, ultimately: style is not particularly interesting.' He also says a low boredom threshold is something common to 'theatre people'; and perhaps the combination of these two things is the key to his success.

His sets are stunning to look at: British audiences have seen little to compare with the sheer shock of the monstrous contraptions of Machinal or the dizzying perspectives of An Inspector Calls, both designed for Stephen Daldry at the National. But what makes him stand out is that the depth he characteristically lends to the stage is matched by the depth of thought behind what he does; his sets comment on and amplify the action in ways that other designers are only beginning to imagine.

In the past few months, MacNeil has been catapulted into the limelight. With Stephen Daldry, he transformed An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley's warhorse of regional rep, into an Expressionist masterpiece: the house of the wealthy Birling family rose on rickety stilts from a cobbled, drizzly wasteland in which scale and perspective were bizarrely distorted; the stage seemed to stretch to an infinitely distant horizon, while through the windows of the house, the actors' faces were magnified into ogreish caricature. He won both the Olivier and the Critics' Circle awards for Best Designer.

He suffered a minor critical hiccup with Ariodante for English National Opera - although that may have had more to do with the hostility David Alden's productions traditionally provoke. But he was back on course again with Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play Machinal, again with Daldry. Fiona Shaw walked off with the Evening Standard award for Best Actress; but the reviewers seemed more interested in MacNeil's ominous set, which stripped bare the machinery of the Lyttelton stage and turned it into a huge, rusting engine room, decorated with grilles, girders and welding torches.

Now, he's carrying a huge weight of expectation for his next project, designing Adrian Noble's production of Macbeth at the Barbican. It will star Derek Jacobi and Cheryl Campbell and opens on Thursday.

All this looks like overnight success; but at 33, MacNeil is prepared to testify that it took considerably longer than that. He spent the best part of 10 years traipsing around the regions, doing everything he could in Birmingham, Worcester, York, Manchester - eight or 10 productions a year, anywhere that would have him. He moved to London three years ago, and did a string of productions at the Gate, where Daldry was artistic director prior to his move to the Royal Court last year. They'd already worked together on a production of An Inspector Calls in York, which MacNeil says marked the beginning of the ideas that became fully fledged in the National production.

MacNeil's first West End production was Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, which opened at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in 1991: he's dismissive of his design, which was, he says, conceived when it was going to be little more than a staged reading in a small studio space. Only the presence of Juliet Stevenson made it into something more. Despite the ordinariness of his work, it did get him attention - perhaps that's what he is thinking of when he says he is deeply sceptical of the London- centred attitudes he has encountered.

In any case, he says he's extremely angry about the running-down of funding for regional theatre in this country, which he sees as the great training ground for talent. He himself won an Arts Council bursary in 1984, after studying at Croydon School of Art; through that, he spent a year at the Library Theatre in Manchester, learning the trade as he went along - an experience he says was invaluable. The bursaries no longer exist.

The crossness he feels doesn't actually come out in the way he talks: he has a self- effacing manner and a gently burring voice. I thought at first that he was Scottish; he's actually half Canadian, born in London and brought up mostly at an English public school, with time out at a high school in New York state. His parents were aspiring theatrical types, although his father turned to journalism to make ends meet.

He says he might be interested in doing films in future - at the moment, he hasn't got anything planned past Macbeth - but right now he must find it hard to put theatre aside, especially since he lives with Stephen Daldry in Notting Hill. MacNeil says, without being over-emphatic about it, that he doesn't think the relationship has a significant effect on the way they work together, except that it gives them more time to talk things through. He speaks of An Inspector Calls and Machinal in terms of working in a team, with the composer Stephen Warbeck and the lighting designer Rick Fisher.

Seeing the shows, this isn't just hollow self-effacement: one reason why both were so stunning was the immaculate co-ordination of acting, sound and light with the shifting sets. That's not to say that MacNeil doesn't have his tics - he loves to do

really lush skies, for instance, even if

(as in Machinal) you only see them for a few seconds; the film-set sky for An Inspector Calls was, he says, a deliberate echo of Hitchcock's Vertigo; and there's another swirling, stormy firmament sitting above

the matt black sets he's currently building for Macbeth.

But in the end, the distinctive thing is how clearly the ideas come across. With the house on stilts in An Inspector Calls, he says, the idea was to create a sense of the isolation of the Birlings, to accentuate how alien their lives were to the world around them; what was impressive was that it actually did that. Too often, when a designer articulates the effects he was trying to create, your reaction is roughly, 'I see what you mean.' With MacNeil, you catch yourself thinking, 'Of course.' Naturally, he'll go far.

'Macbeth' is previewing at the Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891), and opens on Thurs. 'An Inspector Calls' is now at the Aldwych, WC2 (071-836 6404). 'Machinal' is in rep at the National (071-928 2252).