Jocelyn Herbert

Spare, unfussy innovator in late-20th-century stage design

Among Jocelyn Herbert's early teachers were the three women – the sisters Margaret ("Percy") and Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery – of the Motley design team. They made up the strongest influence on British theatre design during the first half of the 20th century; Herbert's career from her comparatively late start in 1956 marked her out as not only their successor but also a great innovator.

Jocelyn Herbert, stage designer: born London 22 February 1917; married 1937 Anthony Lousada (Kt 1975, died 1994; one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1960); died Odiham, Hampshire 6 May 2003.

Among Jocelyn Herbert's early teachers were the three women – the sisters Margaret ("Percy") and Sophie Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery – of the Motley design team. They made up the strongest influence on British theatre design during the first half of the 20th century; Herbert's career from her comparatively late start in 1956 marked her out as not only their successor but also a great innovator.

It was entirely typical of Herbert's approach to her work, which ranged from her first (and natural) home at the Royal Court and both the RSC and the National Theatre to Broadway, the West End and the world's opera houses, that her productions should include, in 1987, a Timon of Athens by a young director (Simon Usher) in the Leicester Haymarket's Studio Theatre on a budget of less than £500 – probably a day's petty cash on the Broadway version of The Threepenny Opera which she designed the following year.

Her association with the pared-down, neo-Brechtian aesthetic of the Royal Court in its glory days under George Devine in the 1950s and 1960s led to the somewhat misleading conception of her work as that of a puritan minimalist. On one occasion in Paris with Devine and Samuel Beckett, she listened as they debated the extent to which one could remove human beings from the stage and still write a dramatic text (the idea of Not I was perhaps a gleam in Beckett's eye); and some directors could be alarmed by Herbert's quiet determination to remove anything inessential from a design. But her work was the very opposite of dehumanised.

Some of the great iconography of modern British theatre is her work: the skeletal houses of Arnold Wesker's Trilogy (1959 and 1960); the bare stage using the Royal Court's own back wall with a visible lighting rig beating down on the heated world of Wesker's The Kitchen (1961); the illuminated, vulvic mouth of Billie Whitelaw spouting against the inky void of Beckett's Not I (1973); Brenda Bruce and later Whitelaw in her different versions of Beckett's Happy Days (1962 and 1979) and its burial mound; the vast metal doors and gaping-mouthed masked chorus of Tony Harrison's version of The Orchestra at the National Theatre (1981) – all of them spare, strong images.

And yet her work, equally successfully, encompassed the 20-odd scenes (including the famous drag-ball episode) of John Osborne's A Patriot for Me (Royal Court, 1965); a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite-influenced West End Pygmalion (Albery, 1974), a classic example of her heightened naturalism; a series of beguiling Art Nouveau settings for the musical of Lerner and Loewe's Gigi (Lyric, 1985); and exuberant designs for the near-musical of the RSC's exhumation of Bronson Howard's Saratoga (Aldwych, 1978).

Jocelyn Herbert was born into an artistic family, the daughter of Sir Alan (A.P.) Herbert, the writer and humorist, and his wife Gwen, famously welcoming hosts at their Chiswick home. She grew up used to the company of writers, actors and artists, and was fascinated when taken by her father when he was working on theatrical ventures, revues at the local Lyric in Hammersmith or West End musicals for C.B. Cochran. She was initially ambitious to be a painter, and, after St Paul's Girls' School, studied art in Paris and Vienna before going to the new London Theatre Studio in 1936.

This had been established as a direct outcome of John Gielgud's classical seasons with an ensemble company in the West End of the early 1930s, when Michel Saint-Denis, after the break-up of the Compagnie des Quinze, worked on André Obey's Noah with designs by Gielgud's regular Motley team. George Devine, also a member of Gielgud's company, responded especially positively to Saint-Denis's ideas of theatre and of training actors and designers. They began the LTS together in Islington premises adapted by Marcel Breuer and the Motley team worked closely with them on all aspects of a course that was revolutionary for the time in many ways, not least in the stress on improvisation and exercises with masks.

Percy Harris noted Herbert's talent at once. She always remembered the striking lines of Herbert's costume designs for a Juanita project, based on Goya, who remained always a potent influence; later projects of The Changeling (Royal Court, 1961) and her stark La Forza del Destino (Paris Opéra, 1975) drew heavily on his work.

The LTS was forced to close as war was imminent, and Herbert soon after married the lawyer and arts administrator Anthony Lousada. They lived in Chiswick among a remarkable set of neighbours including Alec and Merula Guinness, Devine, the painter Julian Trevelyan, the novelist William Gerhardie and later, on Chiswick Mall, the Redgraves. By 1945 she had four children and for more than another decade concentrated on domestic life.

With the formation by Devine in 1956 of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, where Percy Harris helped redefine the stage space and surround, Herbert was first employed as a prop-maker. From the start she felt at home in the collaborative atmosphere of the new enterprise – "To me it was an attitude to life, as well as to the theatre," she said once – responding to the core belief of Devine's approach to the theatre, that every decision taken on a project must stem from and serve the author's text.

At a time of decorative naturalism in a theatre dominated by the West End's stylists (no real "Fringe" then existed) with even the Old Vic in thrall to ornamentation, Devine aimed to create a writers' theatre and to clear the stage of lumber, literally to allow light and air in. Excitingly, designers began to comprehend that the freedom of staging which worked so well with new plays could also work with old ones and Herbert's collaborations with a golden group of directors – Lindsay Anderson, John Dexter, William Gaskill, Tony Richardson – eventually carried over to productions at Stratford or in the West End.

Working at the Court with its superbly proportioned but small stage was a strict discipline. Herbert often had to solve the problems of the overflowing multi-scene locations of demanding pieces such as John Osborne's A Patriot for Me or Luther (1961), and plays with unusual demands such as Ionesco's Exit the King (1963), in which a crumbling throne-room's windows and walls must collapse into a proverbial pint-pot. Her special brand of poetic naturalism in design was born as much out of such technical demands as out of her own taste for unfussed restraint.

Similarly, in her later years Herbert had a reverse challenge, when designing essentially intimate pieces – Lulu (1977) or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1979) – on the vast Metropolitan Opera stage. For her, always, the tension between text and building was a crucial factor in the designer's focus.

Devine, always a talent-spotter and enabler, realised early in her time at Sloane Square that she was a unique talent. Her very first design job there on paper could have been a thankless task, charged with recreating the original Teo Otto designs from the Berliner Ensemble for The Good Woman of Setzuan (1956), based on matting screens on bamboo poles. Herbert saw it as a challenge to recreate something of that quality and austere beauty, and she also usefully proved her sensitivity to actors in the way she coped with Peggy Ashcroft. Unused to Brecht, Ashcroft was reluctant to wear even a half-mask, but she was convinced by Herbert, who made a prototype light mask in supple leather as a demonstration. Instead of imprisoning her, the mask liberated the actress faced with playing a double character.

Herbert and Devine became even closer as a result of working on the production. Eventually, with Devine's separation from Sophie Harris and Herbert's parting from Lousada and their later divorces, they lived happily and productively together until Devine's early death in 1966. Their modest cottage in Hampshire – near to their friends the Redgraves – reflected in its reliance on light and uncluttered simplicity their shared aesthetic.

Working with Tony Richardson, Herbert came up with a strange diaphanous world, perfect for the askew perspective of Ionesco's The Chairs (1957) with Devine and Joan Plowright (in her late twenties) as the aged couple.

Her long collaboration with John Dexter, perhaps her most fruitful, began at a peak with the major achievement of the plays in Wesker's Trilogy, with the three sets of Roots (1959), ingeniously based around the central pivot of the Norfolk cottage's chimney, remaining most vividly impaled in the memory. Herbert's potent kind of suggested naturalism in a fundamentally stylised design remarkably caused no clash with such detailed on-stage naturalism as the frying of real food and boiling of real kettles.

At the time, Herbert's techniques and innovations often confused technical staff; she had to stay up two nights running to scrub and then personally repaint a disastrous job on Roots's first production. And when she went with William Gaskill for a Richard III (1961) at Stratford, at a time when the Memorial Theatre, with rare exceptions such as the experiment of Tanya Moiseiwitsch's permanent neo-Elizabethan setting for 1951's history play cycle, was still wedded to the painterly design tradition, she had a difficult time with the workshop, unconvinced that her designs, using metal grilles against a wooden floor, would work, insisting that they could paint wood to look just like metal (this was five years before John Bury's metal-heavy designs for The Wars of the Roses).

Herbert's collaboration with Lindsay Anderson – inexperienced as a stage director when they first worked together, and a concrete director if ever there was one – could have been awkward. "There won't be anything left!" he once wailed when they were planning John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959) as she removed yet another piece of set from the model, but gradually he relaxed as he appreciated how strong as well as austere her designs could be. Musgrave marked Herbert's first use of polystyrene; the Court workshops were suspicious of it and she ended up making the gravestones for the churchyard scene herself.

Later work with Anderson saw some of Herbert's best work – a quintessential design, her evocation of lost lives in her set for David Storey's Home (1970) in particular. Storey had asked for no set at all, but, as Anderson said, the minute you ask even for a couple of chairs, someone has to decide which chairs. It was still a set abstracted to essentials (Storey was delighted with it), with its bleak terrace and stone balustrade, the tiny but memorable detail of its one broken pilaster subtly suggesting the age of the institution offstage. Herbert even managed – no small achievement – to coax Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson to abandon their toupées.

Inevitably, when Laurence Olivier led the first National Theatre Company at the Old Vic and took several of the Sloane Square young Turks into his embrace, Herbert joined them. She worked there first with Devine on Beckett's Play (1964), the three urned figures in their caked, flaking make-up (oatmeal proved ideal), searing images of immured mortality. She strongly supported Devine in a ferocious row with Olivier and Kenneth Tynan, when both claimed the playing was too fast, despite Beckett's insistence on pace (Beckett agreed with Devine and Herbert).

For Dexter at the National she provided the fluid transitions for Othello (1964) with Olivier, her bedroom scene, using a slightly translucent screen which took light excellently, being especially effective. Also for Dexter at the Old Vic she created the perfect playing space for the gravitas of Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (1971 – Dexter's favourite of all his productions with her), an Elizabethan-style two-level platform in bleached wood with only essential props and furniture carried on by the actors.

When the National moved to the South Bank, it was not really until Herbert and Dexter collaborated on Brecht's Galileo (1980) that the Olivier Theatre found its proper resonance. Until then – it still happens – too many productions approached the Olivier as a variation of a proscenium-arch stage. With Galileo's many scenes, Herbert kept the stage as bare as possible but eschewed a revolve (the obvious solution) for the much less cumbersome use of a truck moved on from upstage. Herbert had been one of the first British designers to seize on and develop the use of projections in the theatre – her use of back-projection in Gaskill's production of Brecht's Baal (Phoenix, 1963) and in A Patriot for Me was revelatory – and she used them cleverly in Galileo, framing the screen in metal which was echoed in a beautifully made copper astrolabe.

A design of similar practicality and beauty was evident – on a fraction of the budget – on Dexter's production of Sartre's The Devil and the Good Lord (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1984). A more abstract design, like a painting, this used a black surround and a platform on a boarded floor, but her brainwave of using crates which the actors could re-form into various shapes (a pulpit, a window) was a spur to Dexter's imagination, just as her work on Wesker's Chips with Everything (Royal Court, 1962) had helped solve technical problems for him years before.

After her powerful Goya-esque Forza in Paris for Dexter, Herbert worked regularly for him at New York's Metropolitan. Her productions included a taut, tense Lulu, a beguiling Die Entfürung aus dem Serail (1979) – no one who saw it could forget her garden scene with its deep blues and scarlet fencing – and Mahagonny with Teresa Stratas, which did not see Dexter at his best.

Some of Herbert's later collaborations with Dexter were on productions marked by disappointing work from him. Her exquisitely textured recreation of Colette's world, including a ravishing Boudin-inspired backcloth, on an intimate Gigi (Lyric, 1985) framed a production so apparently unworked that it was hard to believe that Dexter was responsible for its maladroit staging. Their last collaboration, a misbegotten Broadway Threepenny Opera (Lunt-Fontanne, 1989) starring Sting, was an unfocused muddle.

Later work from Herbert saw her in still glorious form, always trying new techniques and to burrow inside an author's or composer's intention, notably on Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus (ENO, Coliseum, 1986). Directed by David Freeman, the production saw some stunning images – her blue silk river the most striking – and perhaps her most imaginative use of masks.

Masks were also used to great effect in the brave, often misunderstood experiment of Tony Harrison's Square Rounds (Olivier, 1992) in which Herbert's work, based on a revolve ingeniously combined with projections, included a penultimate chinoiserie-inspired scene of haunting delicacy, one of her most potent stage-pictures. It was hard to believe that her contribution, with its innovative wit and verve, was the work of someone of 75.

Films occasionally occupied her, usually when involving her regular stage partners. She was costume designer and colour consultant on Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963) and the movie of his terrible stage Hamlet (1969). She also worked as production designer on several of Lindsay Anderson's films including If . . . (1968), O Lucky Man! (1972) and the oddity of The Whales of August (1987), on which she had a delightful time with Lillian Gish and a less than delightful one with Bette Davis. Her best work in cinema, however, was in Karel Reisz's Isadora (1968) with its dazzling use of colour.

Herbert's work influenced generations of designers. She was a generous encourager of younger talent: among her various assistants was Sally Jacobs, who went on to design Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She also had considerable impact on Hayden Griffin and on Alison Chitty, who now, by a piece of pleasing historical symmetry, runs the Design School with the Motley name attached.

"For me," said Herbert, "there seems no right way to design a play, only perhaps a right approach: one of respecting the text, past or present, and not using it as a peg to advertise your psychological hang-ups with some fashionable gimmick."

Alan Strachan

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