OBITUARIES: BRIAN LEE

Brian Lee, theatre designer: born Newcastle upon Tyne 13 September 1948; died London 29 December 1994.

Brian Lee was a supremely gifted stage designer. He first entered the profession as a singer and dancer, eventually reaching the West End in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar. But his sights were fixed elsewhere and he set about masteringthe technical intricacies of theatre design.

He formed a partnership with Edward Wilson, the equally gifted artistic director of the National Youth Theatre. It was a propitious matching of two people who had the same ideals and their personal and professional association lasted until Lee's death. Together they conceived and mounted some outstanding productions for the NYT, notably Trisha Ward's Nightshriek (1986), a highly original musical version of Macbeth that defied theatrical folklore for that disaster-prone play and proved a milestone in Lee's career. In recent years they anticipated the present success of Oliver! by ambitiously reviving two of Lionel Bart's neglected musicals, Blitz (1990) and Maggie May (1992).

Nightshriek was seen by Professor Manuel Conejero of the Teatre Jove de Espana, who invited Lee and Wilson to go to Spain and mount a new translation of Romeo and Juliet. So began a long association between the NYT and the Spanish Shakespeare Foundation that added distinction to both companies. The partnership operated on a reciprocal basis; Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and, notably, Lorca's Blood Wedding, in 1988, were performed in London, Madrid and Valencia. In particular, Lee's designs for the Lorca classic brought out the superlatives from the Spanish critics and led to his being asked to do other work at the Palau de la Musica in Valencia, where he designed a spectacular Carmina Burana and Flying Dutchman, both in 1992. Following his death the Shakespeare Foundation awarded him through their patron, the great actress Nuria Espert, their Gold Medal, of which there have been only two previous recipients.

Lee's achievements were all the more remarkable in that, in the main, he worked outside the commercial theatre on shoestring budgets. It was his unerring eye for perfection married to originality, his ability to cut his often meagre stage cloth in such away that nobody noticed the seams, that demonstrated his self-taught genius. In parallel with his own career he created the NYT's design department, guiding young hopefuls towards his own credo, urging them to aim high whatever the financial restrictions, and never to settle for the conventional.

Death, they say, cancels everything but the truth, and the truth of Brian Lee's life lies not only in his public achievements, but in the joy and pleasure he gave to all those who worked alongside him. When somebody dies prematurely it is often said that"the best was yet to come" - but Lee always made a habit of going beyond his previous best, constantly surprising us by the fertility of his ideas with a modesty that others, with lesser talents, could well emulate.

Bryan Forbes

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