Francis O’Connor originally wanted to be an actor, then a director. It was only when he found himself lumbered with painting the scenery for a student show that the penny dropped – what really attracted him to the theatre was set design. On completing a stage design course at Wimbledon School of Art, O’Connor worked in the Royal Opera House workshops and also built models for the likes of Richard Hudson and Mark Thompson.
His big break came in 1989, when an Irish company called Druid, based in Galway, invited him to design Wild Harvest, which was later staged at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
It was such a success that O’Connor stayed on with Druid to do The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a play set in rural Ireland by an unknown young Londoner that went on to become a transatlantic phenomenon.
Not perhaps the most inspiring of subjects – a middle-aged woman and her vindictive old mother slug it out in their dingy, rain-battered peat cottage – but O’Connor’s design managed to be horribly real while at the same time reflecting their dreary, dead-end lives.
Another play by the same writer, Lonesome West, directed and designed by the same team, was seen in Ireland by the great American playwright Arthur Miller, who was so impressed that he asked Garry Hynes (as a director) and O’Connor (as a designer) to work on his new play, Mr Peters’ Connections, at a studio theatre in New York.
O’Connor’s biggest assignment in London has been the musical La Cava, currently playing at the Victoria Palace, an extravagant romance set in eighth century Spain. ‘When I got the job I rushed off to find books on Visigothic culture which was prevalent at that time in Spanish history, but I gave up pretty quickly because I couldn’t find anything.
‘Basically, I had to come up with something that allowed for maximum flexibility and they were tinkering with the script and swapping scenes round right up to the last minute… that’s the way it is with musicals,’ he says.
The advantage of O’Connor’s monolithic wooden panels on wheels is that they can be moved around the stage quickly, so audiences don’t haven’t to sit there twiddling their thumbs between scene changes. He has worked with the director of La Cava, Steven Dexter, on a number of previous occasions, and judging by the seamlessness of La Cava, it is clearly a partnership that works.
‘Steven is very strong on the visual and technical aspects of staging a show like this, so he was always able to say whether or not an aesthetic idea would work in practice.’
In the autumn, O’Connor reunites with another favourite director, Conall Morrison – they did The Colleen Bawn and Tarry Flynn together at London’s National Theatre last year – to tackle the epic Peer Gynt at the Olivier.
He is also working on the Ayckbourn comedy, A Small Family Business, soon to open at Chichester Festival Theatre.