Theatre designers take a bow

The Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design is 20 this year. Charlotte Cripps talks to three of its brightest stars, and to the directors who have championed them
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Monty Python in the West End

The designer: Tim Hatley

Current productions: 'Spamalot' (Palace Theatre), 'Rafta, Rafta...' (National Theatre) 'Shrek: The Musical' (opens next year). Past highlights include 'Closer' and 'Notes on a Scandal' on film, and 'Private Lives' (Broadway) and 'Humble Boy' (National Theatre) on stage

"When Mike Nichols wanted to have a word with me about designing the film Closer, I thought he had the wrong person. I'd never done a film before, but I got on a plane to meet him for lunch in New York. He said that he wanted a fresh approach, and that he had seen Private Lives on Broadway, and the Crucible that I did with Richard Eyre.

"I said I'd give it a go because I'm always up for a challenge, and then he asked me if I'd been sent the script for Spamalot.I had no idea what he was talking about. It's not just a direct copy of a Monty Python film, and the challenge with Mike was turning it into a Broadway show. I have tried to embrace the cardboard-cut-out world of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python and then put it into three dimensions.

"Mike is such a wise man. He has really been round the block several times. He totally trusts you with the work. We had disagreements, but Mike let me get on with it. I knew he absolutely believed in me and trusted my vision and aesthetic. Because of his calmness it brought out the best in me as a designer.

"Sometimes when directors micro-manage designs it's more like being a plumber than a visionary. Mike would challenge me often with a leftfield comment such as, 'let's have flames everywhere' in the nightclub scene in Closer, but it made me respond honestly and explain that we needed rather to design the club with girls seen through perspex walls."

The director: Mike Nichols

Current production: 'Spamalot' (Palace Theatre). Past highlights include 'Barefoot in the Park' and 'Plaza Suite' (both on Broadway), and the films 'Closer', 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', and 'The Graduate'

"I saw the production of Private Lives on Broadway with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. I thought it was the most brilliant and insightful set, especially for a play that we've known for almost a century and we've seen over and over again. Tim found things in its heart that have never been seen before.

"The beautiful, romantic Paris apartment – dark red with the view of the Eiffel Tower, and the softest velvet sofas transforms each time you see it. By daylight that apartment looked like Dracula at noon – the sofas were rotten and dark red paint was peeling off the walls. It was subtle but a stroke of genius. It expressed so much about the interior of the play.

"I thought: 'This guy is as good as it gets. I have to have him for Spamalot and for anything else I can get him for.' He proved to be a joy to be with and work with and that wasn't to be expected. I knew the stage designer Jocelyn Herbert – she was the greatest designer of her time – and the things he had learnt from her were clear. That included joyful dealings with the people he is working with, having everything be fun, and being a maniac with detail.

"We were very happy together because I am also a maniac with detail. He did things for Spamalot that were not always immediately visible that defined it not as a spoof, which was my great terror".


'Macbeth' as a kitchen-sink drama

The designer: Anthony Ward

Current productions: 'Macbeth' (Gielgud) and 'Glengarry Glen Ross' (Apollo Theatre). Past highlights include 'My Fair Lady' (National Theatre and Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (London Palladium) and 'Mary Stewart' (Donmar)

"I had never worked with Rupert before Macbeth. We already have another production in the pipeline for the new year, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. For many theatre directors who have ongoing relationships with a stage designer, the partnership is a bit like getting married. Over the past 20 years I have worked with a handful of directors, all of whom I have got more compatible with as time goes by. What clicked with Rupert was that he was full of ideas and open-minded.

"You're trying to get the play to emerge itself, and also three-dimensionally, by responding to the theatre space. Very early on Rupert was keen to set Macbeth in a kitchen as it is a domestic drama. It developed into a simple set in a white-tiled space with elements of a kitchen and a lift with a clanking door that is menacing, giving it a subterranean feel. I wanted to work poetically with the elements of earth, wind and fire that are so prevalent in Shakespeare's plays: the fire of the oven, the water of the sink that runs blood, and the motion of the witches going into the lift and seemingly vanishing in to thin air."

The director: Rupert Goold

Current productions: 'Macbeth' (Gielgud), 'Rough Crossings' (Lyric, Hammersmith) and 'Faustus' (on tour), all for Headlong Theatre , of which he is Artistic Director. Past highlights include 'The Glass Menagerie' (Apollo), 'The Tempest' (RSC), 'Speaking Like Magpies' (RSC) and 'Scaramouche Jones' (touring)

"I have always liked Anthony's work because it is beautiful, detailed and theatrical. He is a big star in design.

"I'm sure he doesn't have to work anymore but he worked harder on the show than any other designer I've ever worked with before.

"I had the initial idea to set Macbeth in a kitchen, but what he kept pushing for was a space that could be a kitchen but could also be a hospital or an asylum. He was right because it allowed us to play more scenes that were set in other worlds. His idea of the big central lift entrance is really dynamic and theatrical.

"He would constantly be worrying away at things that didn't seem important to me – such as all the architectural features. But his attention to detail was the sign of someone who was a proper craftsman.

"What I look for in a stage designer is imagination, a lack of sentimentality, and simplicity. The first time you work with a designer is always an exploration of how you are going to work together, as well as of the work itself.

"He won't thank me for saying it but he is a slightly older generation to me – I'm 35 years old – and I have been working with designers who are closer to my age. But we are quite similar, temperament-wise, which helps. We are calm, passionate about the work but gentle in the way we approach it."


An iconoclastic 'Carmen'

The designer: ES Devlin

Current productions: 'Carmen' (ENO) and 'Salome' (ROH). Past highlights include Kanye West's US tour, Pet Shop Boys' world tour, and Kate Moss's film 'Dreams of Miss X'

"I met up with the director Sally Potter for an intensive seven-day period in southern Spain – for a taste of the fantasy Spain that Bizet imagined but never visited himself – to develop this production of Carmen. We listened to the piece 20 times and watched about five productions of it on DVD because we wanted to learn it together. This is the third time that I have been away with a director. It is not always possible, but it is extremely helpful being holed up together. Ideas are more thoroughly thought through and consistent.

"Our brief from ENO was to create this archetypically French piece in English. We both felt that we should respond in full and not half-heartedly to this challenge, and so – perhaps controversially – we began to conceive a thoroughly English, contemporary, reading of the piece. We fleshed out the bones of the essential geometric principles of the piece. Our references were not the sandy bull-rings and blue skies that surrounded us, but the urban wastelands of locations such as London's Westway. We looked at photographs such as Josef Koudelka's images of gypsies throughout Eastern Europe and Martin Parr's photographs of the Brits in Benidorm.

"I've only worked with a few directors once; they always come back for more."

The director: Sally Porter

Current production: Carmen (ENO). Past highlights include the films 'Orlando', 'The Tango Lesson', 'The Man Who Cried' and 'Yes'

"Not everybody has been infuriated by my ENO production of Carmen that is set in a high-tech security firm, but people are incredibly territorial about how classical repertoire should be handled and they feel they own it. Not a note of the music has been changed and nobody has walked out of the production.

"It was all a fresh experience as I had never directed an opera or worked with Es before.As a film-maker, I wasn't sure at first why it was necessary to do it. I chose Es after I looked at her website. I liked her simplicity, strong use of colour, and the fact that her work looks like it is suspended in light, with a reference that encompasses film and art.

"Film-making is very collaborative so it was a familiar relationship for me. She entered very deeply into the meaning of the piece, as any good stage designer does. and understood what it all means. The design comes as a result of all that. The initial concept of surveillance and making a soldier into a security guard was my idea, but then Es's ideas and mine seamlessly became one."

The year's Linbury finalists will be showing their work at the National Theatre from 10 November – 5 January. For further information go to