Alan Barlow

Stage designer
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The Independent Online

Alan Charles Barlow, stage designer and artist: born Coventry 14 December 1926; Fellow, then Head of Design and Lecturer in Greek Theatre, Drama Department, Manchester University 1965-69; Head of Design, National Theatre School of Canada 1969-71; married 1975 Grace North (one son, one daughter); died King's Lynn, Norfolk 19 April 2005.

Three years ago the Royal Opera House celebrated the 50th anniversary of Maria Callas's London début, in the title role of Bellini's Norma, with a display of her costume. Designed by Alan Barlow, the dress had a fraught history. Callas had declared on her arrival that she would not be requiring a costume as she had brought her own from La Scala, a blow to Barlow, who, like any designer, had conceived the production as a whole. Spotting her in a coffee break, however, he rushed up with the designs, dropped them in her lap, and she instinctively cried, "Que bellissima!" It was his dress she wore.

The middle child of Coventry shopkeepers, Barlow showed artistic talent from an early age. He several times won the Gold Medal of the Royal Drawing Society's Red Book scheme for children, and always valued this early source of independent criticism. He attended Coventry Art School and then the Slade, and in 1949 won a scholarship to travel around Europe, a liberating experience that introduced him to Italy, a passion for the rest of his life.

At the age of 11 he discovered a copy of Shakespeare in the public library and began directing classmates in abbreviated versions. Immersed in the Coventry amateur dramatic scene, at 17 he designed over 200 costumes for the Coventry Cathedral Pageant 1944. Two years later he was appointed resident designer at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, then under the directorship of Hugh Hunt.

When Hunt moved to the Old Vic in London, Barlow went with him. Successes included She Stoops to Conquer, starring Michael Redgrave, in 1949, and Murder in the Cathedral in 1953. T.S. Eliot wholeheartedly approved of his decision to design the Third Tempter as an alter ego of Becket, and said that he wished all future productions would follow this lead.

Despite the success of his career, Barlow was increasingly drawn to the religious life. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1950, and in 1953 he entered the Benedictine community at Prinknash, Gloucestershire. He continued to draw when possible and designed a set of Stations of the Cross for the monastery chapel, and a tapestry for Glastonbury Church.

His religious faith was of great importance to him throughout his life, but after 11 years as a Brother he arrived at the difficult conclusion that his was not a monastic vocation, and in 1965 he left the monastery. Within two months he was offered a Fellowship in the Drama Department at Manchester University, subsequently becoming Head of Design and lecturer in Greek Theatre.

In 1969 he was made Head of Design at the National Theatre School of Canada, in Montreal, moving on in 1971 to design several productions for the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. He then went to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he had already designed several productions while at Manchester, including Boucicault's The Shaughraun (1967) starring Cyril Cusack. He won the Irish Critics' Award for his production of Old Times in 1973.

Over the course of Barlow's career as a designer the staging of plays changed profoundly, and he responded to this with continuously innovative use of materials, lighting and technology. His 1974 production of King Lear for the Actors Company, featuring a young Ian McKellen as Edgar, had a set made entirely of string stretched on wooden frames. This enabled fantastic effects, especially the impression of torrential rain in the storm scene. In the same year he designed Albert Herring for the New English Opera Company at Aldeburgh. Benjamin Britten was annoyed when the audience broke into spontaneous applause for the ingenious way the set transformed into the tent scene.

After marriage in 1975 and three years in Holland, Barlow returned to London to design the world premiere of John Tavener's opera Thérèse (1979) at Covent Garden. This piece flowed without scene-change breaks and required the set to transform silently, in full view of the audience, from the dying nun's cell to a children's playground, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Barlow solved this conundrum brilliantly by creating a semi- abstract skull shape in fibre-glass which could be opened up like a giant fan, and lit to produce almost magical effects. The designs were later purchased by the V&A for the Theatre Museum.

Heart-valve surgery in 1980 caused him to give up stressful theatre work, and he retired happily to Norfolk to become a painter and enjoy his family. He designed only once more, returning to Stratford, Ontario, in 1995 at the invitation of his friend David William, to design Euripides' The Bacchae.

His pictures appear in private collections, including that of the Prince of Wales. In 2000 his design for a stained-glass window of the Annunciation was realised in the Catholic church in Swaffham, Norfolk.

Edward Barlow