Monday, 24 November 2014

My blog is moving to

I will be continuing this blog at from now on, so please follow the link to read more.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Preparing the 2012 season- and not so nice Nice

This year the three plays for the Festival are Richard lll, directed by Lindsay Posner with the extraordinary Jay Whittaker as Richard, As You Like It and Inherit the Wind, directed by Adrian Noble. I started work on them in late October, 2011, knowing there would be a big hiccup [there was] while I went to Nice to do The Abduction from the Seraglio for Opera de Nice, directed by Ron Daniels, of which more later - possibly, [it was not a fun experience, despite the beauty of both the town and the theatre]

 Actually, why not now? I need to scan in a few more drawings before I can complete the Globe blog anyway.

Here are quotes from some emails.

To Amanda, my agent.
The full story is too long for an email, but the situation at the moment is that the crazy beaurocracy of this theater. They have basically driven the excellent costume supervisor/head of costume out by heavy handed commissioning tactics, leaving her undermined. There is an awful lot of mad French pride going on with neither side wanting to back down. I'm going to have a go with the technical director in a bit, but it is very risky to be expected to get this thing on stage without a proper head of costume or assistant. Mmm.

To Jane Dodgson, Jan 9th
Nice opera is being very heavy going indeed. Frinton rep as run by a very dodgy  town council, one is initially blinded by the great beauty of the theatre [and the town] itself, but Eyes have been Opened! Thank God there are only 6 principals in Seraglio, doing Boris or Prince Igor would swiftly bring on complete nervous collapse.

 From Robert Drake...

“So nice to know we’re nicer than Nice.

Or perhaps we’ll put this quote on the production office door:
“…a haven of efficient tranquility…” – D. Clancy Steer”

Jan 11th 2012
”It really has been most peculiar here, it's a lovely town, and the most beautiful late 19th C Opera House, but it hides a level of chaos and mismanagement quite unique in my long experience. I've moaned to you all separately so won't go on too much, suffice it to say that yesterday evening we had a Technical Dress Rehearsal, in which the 60something costumes in the show were represented by 1 x1/3rd finished turban, [hastily covered by me with a bit of old chiffon to hide the fluffy padding] and a veil, o and a couple of pairs of shoes - and about 1/4 of the props.

And nobody seemed to care much or think it peculiar!! Aaaaagh

Ron, who had got in a strop because he didn't like his lunch has been remarkably calm under the circumstances.

The new Artistic director isn't here, he's in Washington, or possibly Vienna, so there is no one actually in charge, and the head of costume made a bolt for London at the end of last week. Apparently Marseilles, another town hall run House, is worse.

Apart from that there have been some good moments. Jane Dodgson, [who thinks Nice is run by an especially incompetent cell of the Corsican Mafia] suggested that I visited the Chagall Museum -Where I spent the most life-enhancing 2 hours since I've been - it's wonderful. It's not that I'm was a huge fan of the paintings, though they do grow on you, they just shine with such light and goodness of spirit, and most unusually, the film that they showed In the museum was great, really interesting. What a lovely man! I was also much inspired that he was up ladders well into his 70s painting opera house ceilings and doing stained glass windows and huge mosaics. Died aged 97 at home in St Paul de Vence, paint brush in hand!

Also a fine sunset from the ruins overlooking the bay, then to a little baroque church in a side street which had the most spectacular nativity crib. Maybe 70 beautifully made little folk and animals, many of which moved. There was a man shoeing his donkey, another shearing sheep, a woman endlessly stirring her soup, sheep looking round, and Mary raising and lowering the Baby's blanket, even a fish that popped out of its pond. Then a projected angel flew jerkily across the sky, pursued by the star. A delight, and I thought I had seen enough creches in that hilltop village to last a life-time. Discovered one St Rita, who is apparently handy to have on your side as she is patron of Hopeless causes and impossible cases. Don't know if she carries much clout in the theatre though.

The band is in for the 1st time tonight, always cheering, and I have been promised quite a lot of frocks tomorrow. Mustn't get too excited.“

To cap it all I re-damaged my already bashed knee. It completely packed up when in the Cocteau Museum in Menton - totally - no use at all. Husband and helpful chap carried, me to the front of the museum and I ended up being carted off to Menton hospital with 4 exceptionally  nice para-medics in an ambulance. Where The knee was xrayed and I was sent home with prescriptions for pain-killers a huge splint and crutches.

The rest of Maxwell's time with me was memorable as the apartment was so noisy and uncomfortable that sleep was almost impossible. We were over an Irish Pub, where drunken folk roared round the street from 2am till 4, then the waiters in the restaurant opposite started clanking out the tables at 6.30, and soon after builders started drilling in the basement! 

I can recommend traveling “disabled” though, people are so nice and helpful that it's tempting to carry on when you've recovered.

After all that, the show was a great success..... 

Friday, 22 June 2012

Staying in Coronado

It seems a bit perverse to start a 2012 Old Globe Blog with only a week to go of my 3 month stay here, but it has taken me till now to recover my wits and some energy after the all consuming vortex that is the technical rehearsal period for the 3 plays of the Festival.
This year I have an apartment in Coronado. It's a lovely place to be, quiet and convenient, with the bay and the Bridge at the front that I can see from my windows, and the ocean at the back where I can walk as the sun goes down.

The condominiums, [condominia?] are not beautiful from the outside, in fact given the wealth of this little city, it amazes me that the city fathers didn't insist on buildings more in keeping with the rest of the architecture on the island. But they are very, very well run, lavishly landscaped, with 4 pools, a gym and goodness knows what else.

My sister-in-law, Deb, came to stay for a couple of weeks at the end of May, and there were 2 local excitements, one cosmic in the shape of the solar eclipse, and the other tiny in the shape of 4 eggs laid by the pair of resident house-finches which nest in a phoney tree on the balcony.

We watched the eclipse in great state from the balcony overlooking the beach, [I had purchased goggles for the purpose from the Space museum] Deb managed to take a photo through hers, but then, when we thought the show was over, the 'marine layer' covered the sun, acting as a perfect grey filter that allowed us to see everything perfectly without the goggles.

The little house-finches sing most of the time, the eggs, which were at least the 2nd brood of the season have hatched and flown.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Autobiography 3. The Royal Court 2

Royal Court 2. D. H. Lawrence.

The 1st productions for which I designed the costumes was “A Collier’s Friday Night”, and such was the critical success of this that the following year a trilogy of all 3 of D.H.Lawrence’s mining community plays was produced to universal acclaim.

Although written between 1911 and 1913 they had never had professional productions, so these were, in fact, World Premiers. The director was Peter Gill, and the great John Gunter, then aged 28, designed the sets. We embarked on our researches with a day-trip to Eastwood, the bleak little mining town some 8 miles from Nottingham. It was something of a shock to see just how small the miners’ cottages were, with outside privies and no hot water. An exact, true to size construction of the entire cottage of the play fitted easily within the constricted sight-lines of the tiny Royal Court stage.

Like much of Lawrence’s stage works, and indeed his best known novel, “Sons and Lovers”, the theme was jealousy, a bitter battle between a man’s new wife and his glowering mother. It was clearly a theme that dominated Lawrence’s own life experience, where the women were, or considered themselves to be, “a cut above” their lumpen, furiously inarticulate coal-streaked men-folk. If I remember rightly the climactic scene took place while the women were waiting for news of their men after an accident at the coal-mine. “I dinna want the Orts and Slarts of a man” Minnie cries. I never did find out what an ort or a slart was.

We all worked hard to recreate this world without any sense of condescension, and the result in the end was beautiful in it’s honesty. The costumes were naturally very simple, but such was the care lavished on every pinafore and pit-boot that they had a great richness about them. Even if half the miners’ high-backed work trousers fell to pieces on the 1st dress rehearsal as I had tried to bleach the colour out of army surplus trousers from Lawrence Corner in an over-strong solution of domestic bleach with disastrous results. The colour shifted not at all, military dyers might like to hear.

I suppose that these productions did define the Royal Court ‘style’. It was very earnest and deeply purist, which is maybe surprising the given the Court’s somewhat racy reputation as a centre of the dramatic avant garde.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Amadeus 3

Here are a final few photos of Amadeus. I love the smoky candle-lit feel of the lighting, it makes the stage pictures look like Hogarth paintings, I think. Though it must be said that towards the end as the play gets ever darker, more than one candle would make the photography a bit less challenging!

I have to admit that I do have issues with Amadeus, I want to barge in and stick up for the characters that Peter Shaffer defames. [Nearly all of them, it seems] I shall restrain my impulses to chorus “I don't believe it...” along with the Venticelli. But it is a fantasy, a memory play, and undeniably a most spectacular evening. It seems that all is fair in the author's search to make extremely dramatic points that might be made less powerful if mere justice to his characters got in the way.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Autobiobraphy 2. The Royal Court Theatre (1)

Chapter 2. The Royal Court Theatre.

In 1966 I was given a job at The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. It’s strange how doors present themselves. I had just finished a year as the Arts’ Council trainee at Lincoln Rep. That last sentence needs explaining, as there are no longer any such thing as Arts’ Council trainees, and hardly any repertory theatres any more. When I left Birmingham College of Art it was suggested that I try for the Arts’ Council scheme. It was quite brilliant in it’s simplicity, and must have cost peanuts. You did some sort of exam, designing the set and costumes for a set project, I think mine was Don Giovanni, handed it in, went to an interview in St James’ Place if you were short-listed, and if successful were offered a job in some theatre around Britain. It could have been anywhere, but because of the comparative strength of my costume work, I got the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. The fledgling designer was paid 2/3rds of the minimum salary, £12 a week, I seem to remember, the theatre in question found the remaining third. So 12 designers got their crucial 1st professional job as assistant house designer for a year, and the theatre got a very cheap designer. Brilliant – the first round of Thatcher’s cuts put paid to all that.

Lincoln was a fortnightly rep which went out on tour to Rotherham and somewhere else that I can no longer remember, (Scunthorpe?) so in effect there was a new production to prepare every week. I only did one show as assistant designer, the Christmas Panto, which was Aladdin, otherwise I did show for show with the head of design, Jonathan Porter, (I hope that’s right). It was very good training as you had to improvise and work very quickly, no spending all morning on a single costume design, but exhausting with at least every other Saturday was an ”all-nighter“ in order to light on Sunday, do the technical rehearsal on Monday, a dress run on Monday evening, and open on Tuesday. My year was cut short because after 2 nights without sleep I tripped over a stage-brace that someone had left out next to an open trap door over a spiral staircase which lead to the under-stage area.

When my broken finger had healed and my memory recovered from the days of ‘retrograde amnesia’ I left Lincoln to try my luck in London. It was suggested that I should begin my assault on the capital by going to see the great designer, Percy Harris. Percy, christened Margaret, was one of the 3 remarkable women who made up the iconic design team of the 1940s and 50s called “Motley”. Percy was the only one still living, and concerned herself greatly with encouraging the younger generation of stage and costume designers. Her 1st question to me was “are you strong?” I couldn’t think quite what she meant, or why it was important. It wasn’t physical strength that she meant, though robustness of constitution was certainly part of it. But I did find out in the years that followed that a certain quality of steel in the backbone was crucial in order to survive in the perilous waters of the business.

It was typical of her graceful generosity that she took the time to see me, especially as I had got the date wrong. Her main piece of career advice was that I should find a director a year or two in advance of myself, and hopefully move up through the ranks with him. She knew just the person, she said, it was Peter Gill, then starting out as a director at the Royal Court.

At about the same time (and I can’t quite remember how this came about) I found myself making a set model for the other great designer of the decade, Jocelyn Herbert. I was so impressed by everything about her. She lived in austere splendour in an artist’s studio off Flood Street in Chelsea. Tiled floors, photos of the Carmargue on the walls, Monteverdi on the record player, and the wonderful, impractical Alvis Grey Lady car that she drove, I had never seen or heard anything like it. The opera she was working on was Gluck’s or possibly Monteverdi’s, Orpheo, and although I was never an expert model maker, I seemed to do alright.

Jocelyn was the widow of George Devine who had been the director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and she decided in her rather grand way that I should have the costume supervisor job as she didn’t like the incumbent at the time. She proceeded to tell Bill Gaskell, the director, that he had to see me. So it came to pass, that in the space of a week, I was interviewed by both Peter Gill to design a D. H. Lawrence play “A Collier’s Friday Night”, and by Bill, to take over the wardrobe. I was 24. Looking back on it I have absolutely no idea how I survived Except that somehow I fitted in, and was not overwhelmed by this odd, brilliant group. I must have had the bravery that sometimes goes with ignorance and inexperience, and for the first time in my life felt completely at home.

I was a hopeless costume supervisor, as I don’t have a tidy mind, nor am I in the least bit good at, or interested in maintenance and filing, my desk in the cubby-hole of an office overlooking the yard and the bus depot at the back of the theatre was always covered in drawings rather than any sort of supervisory matter. Luckily this part of the job didn’t last very long as I was asked to design an increasingly demanding selection of productions. In those days I usually did the set as well, so set boxes and bits of ½” to the foot model bits and pieces added to the clutter.

I have been trying to work out what the defining characteristics of the Royal Court ‘style’ actually were. It was certainly a pared-down rigorous aesthetic much influenced by the work of the mighty Berliner Ensemble as directed by Bertold Brecht, seen through the English eyes of Jocelyn Herbert. One important Brechtian idea was that every thing you saw on stage had to be true to itself. There was no artifice. In other words if you had as a back-drop a painting of a landscape no-one believed for a moment that they were actually out of doors, they were merely responding to the paint and the canvas and the idea of a landscape. Therefore wood was never covered in paint to imitate wood, because what you saw was paint, but it would be scraped and waxed to enhance its natural woodiness.

This hyper naturalism was combined with the simplest of scenic suggestions to create an evocative sense of place. Quite often the set was a gauze box of some kind with carefully chosen furniture. This style was certainly a reaction against the fussy 1950’s drawing-room comedy style prevalent in the West End, but was also necessary, as not only were budgets extremely tight, but that the stage itself was tiny. There simply wasn’t room for clutter. The costumes therefore, became very dominant in the space. And it was years before I felt comfortable using bright colours! The auditorium was painted Jocelyn Herbert brown, a shade somewhere between dark mouse and sepia, and over much colour on stage was thought to be a little vulgar.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Amadeus 2

The Amadeus costumes were fun to design - although it is a fantasy memory play, it is about real people in a specific time-frame, so obviously there has to be a high level of period accuracy, but because the 18th century part of the play takes place in what Shaffer describes as a “golden glow” this indicated a palette of pinks and golds that is, I'm pleased to say, very effective.

Also, one seldom gets a chance to do huge corseted frocks with full-on 5' wide panniers and towering wigs - with 2' feathers on top just in case they didn't look big enough.

Nowadays the fashion is to do 18th century plays operas in modern, or at least 20th century dress, lest complex costumes 'get in the way'. Also they are extremely expensive and difficult to make, requiring a level of knowledge and period expertise on the part of the cutters/drapers that is seldom available. There are few other costume shops that could have managed this little lot as well as the Old Globe has so done.