Stunning scenic routes

Theatre set designer Tim Hatley has just won a Laurence Olivier Award for Stanley. Lynda Relph-Knight examines what it takes to bring a show to life

It’s been a good month for theatre design.

It kicked off with a show of Pamela Howard’s work at the Rona Gallery in London, giving a cameo of the art of the set designer – and a glimpse behind the scenes of productions such as English Touring Theatre’s current Henry IV parts I and II. Then, last weekend, theatre designer Tim Hatley won a coveted Laurence Olivier Award for his set for Pam Gem’s play Stanley at The National Theatre’s courtyard venue, The Cottesloe.

Ironically, though their styles are very different, there is a link between the two designers. Howard founded the MA in Scenography at Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London and taught Hatley, who graduated from the college in 1989.

Hatley is one of the most prolific designers in British theatre. Working internationally, he crosses the boundaries between drama, opera and dance, creating architectural sets that, as with Theatre de Complicité’s dour play The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, often add to the plot, disintegrating in front of the audience only to be reconstructed by the stage crew between performances. Original costumes are also within his repertoire.

Stanley, which opened to acclaim on Broadway in New York this month, is based on the life of artist Stanley Spencer, who immortalised the Berkshire town of Cookham. Spencer was caught up in a love triangle between his lesbian mistress Patricia, who he later married, and his first wife Hilda, who dies tragically at the end of the play. He portrays the affair in his portrait work. His other obsession was the desire to paint a chapel.

“I tried to do it for him,” says Hatley of his set design. The audience sat in pews and the stage took on an ecclesiastical aura. But Hatley crossed this idea with the feeling of being in the artist’s studio, with Spencer’s paintings interspersed throughout the auditorium. Hatley is famed for this kind of artistic interaction with the audience.

He is also renowned for involving the cast in the design. This has been most pronounced in his work on Out of the house walked a man and Lucie Cabrol with Theatre de Complicité, which is run as a co-operative, sharing ideas on design and direction as well as management. But it is also there in Stanley. Hatley says he set out “to create a space the actors could inhabit, that could evolve over rehearsals”.

Like Hatley, Howard is prolific, though her work is largely in drama, notably for West Yorkshire Playhouse, Theatre Clwyd, Glasgow’s Tramway and companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The striking thing about the exhibition is the variety of media Howard uses to convey her design ideas to the director, set-builders and costume-makers. A rich collection of graphic styles adorn the walls of the gallery in London’s Mayfair – paintings, sketches, collages, some anotated, some with fabric swatches. Better than many an “art” show.

The diversity is neatly summed up by a 3D self-portrait – paint-spattered plimsolls, tiny costumed mannequins, bits of models, tools and a bucket – displayed in a transparent cube.

Commercial designers can learn much from the likes of Hatley and Howard. The process behind theatre design is much the same as with any other creative discipline, but the freedom of expression and control over the project can be much greater, given the right relationship between designer and director. So too can be the choice of special effects and materials, often scavenged from unlikely sources. There is a texture to the work, as much in its rough form as in completion, that is akin to art – both Howard and Hatley sell their sketches and paintings as artworks – and a glimpse behind the scenes can be as rewarding as seeing the final production.

Theatre designs by Pamela Howard continues at the Rona Gallery, 1-2 Weighhouse Street, London W1 until 28 February.

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