Linbury Stage prize contenders on show

The winner of the Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design is to be announced at the National Theatre in London this week and 12 finalists have been placed at four top drama companies to work alongside directors on a live brief. Nick Smurthwaite looks at w

Linbury finalist – Will Holt
Production – Varjak Paw
Company – The Opera Group

While working on this musical adaptation of a children’s book about a colony of urban cats, the three Linbury finalists were asked to come up with a style of storytelling that evokes the book without leaning too heavily on its striking illustrations by Dave McKean. ‘The story is very cinematic, with numerous settings and short scenes,’ says finalist Will Holt. ‘The main challenge was the fluid movement of one scene to another.’ Holt’s solution was to create two monolithic plinth-like structures that can be adapted to various uses, as well as a couple of framed lightboxes suspended above the stage, which can be used to suggest different times and settings. The floor of his set, made from steel sheets, has a ‘shimmering quality, suggesting the city on a rainy night’. To avoid the cliché of a painted cityscape on the back wall, Holt came up with three interlocking neon skylines in purple, red and blue. ‘Colour and light are very important to me,’ he says. Director John Fulljames met with each designer four times, providing a sounding board for their ideas, while avoiding steering them in any particular direction. He also gave them a hypothetical budget of £20 000. For Holt, a tight budget ‘forces you to come up with ingenious solutions. Ultimately, this is a family show, so you can’t afford to be too slick or abstract’.

Linbury finalist – Maureen Freedman
Production – Gulliver’s Travels
Company – Headlong Theatre

A new staging of the classic Jonathan Swift story by touring company Headlong gave the competing designers plenty to think about. Director Rupert Goold simply handed them the book – rather than a working script – and invited them to come up with ideas. Maureen Freedman, a recent graduate of Wimbledon School of Art’s stage design course, opted for a basic, low-tech solution. ‘All of Gulliver’s travels are in his head, so I wanted to find a way of combining his sense of aloneness with the spirits conjured up from his imagination,’ she says. ‘I used elements you would find in a domestic space – a TV, a ball of knitting wool, newspapers, an electric fan. To suggest a storm scene, the newspapers are swirled into the air by the fan.’ The floor of the set is plain white boards with trapdoors, and, as Gulliver is on stage throughout, all the costume changes take place on-stage. ‘I’ve made a lot of use of sound and lighting to change mood and atmosphere,’ says Freedman. ‘It took me about a month and four separate concepts to come up with something coherent.’ Freedman says she was spurred on by the trust put in her by such an established company. For Goold, the input of three ‘totally different imaginations and sensibilities’ was stimulating and salutary. ‘At this stage, young designers can easily lose sight of the bigger picture,’ he says. ‘I told them not to worry about the constraints of touring, just to let their imaginations run wild.’

Linbury finalist – Sophie Mosberger
Production – Doubt/ A Parable
Company – Tricycle Theatre

London’s Tricycle Theatre tasked its three finalists to come up with ideas for the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt: A Parable. Set in a Catholic convent school in the Bronx, New York, in 1964, the play has four locations, including the Mother Superior’s office and the convent garden. Tricycle director Nicolas Kent regards the space as difficult to design for, being neither a conventional proscenium arch theatre nor a studio; the narrow stage has no space at the sides. Hence, the main challenge was creating four separate locations within a limited area, and to keep the action flowing. Sophie Mosberger, whose background is in graphic design, chose a black-and-white motif as a metaphor for the convent’s world of certainty. ‘I felt my job was primarily to serve the text, so I kept everything simple and stark, but with an air of unease,’ she says. For the walls and floors, she used a thin paper film, like wrinkled skin, and for the garden, thorny trees to represent an unruly force of nature. In the final scene, as an older nun doubts her faith, lights shine through the floorboards. Did Mosberger find the sessions she had with Kent useful? ‘He was really good on the practicalities, things like how the characters got from one place to the next,’ she says. ‘You don’t always think of those simple things when you’re working on an original design concept.’

Linbury finalist – Garance Marneur
Production – Turandot
Company – Hampstead Theatre

Bertolt Brecht’s unfinished, episodic play, with no specific location or time frame, presented the three finalists assigned to Hampstead Theatre with huge challenges. Where and when do you set it? How do you keep it moving along as it jumps about in time and space? Director Anthony Clark encouraged his designers to storyboard it like a film, and to think about how to get the actors on and off the stage. For French-born Garance Marneur, it has been a ‘rigorous but rewarding’ experience, which has made her take full responsibility for designing a show. Her solution to the play’s hybrid nature was to create an abstract space set somewhere between the time it was written (during World War II), 18th century China and modern-day Britain. ‘I framed each scene like a 1930s German propaganda poster,’ she says, ‘but, at the same time, there has to be a strong feeling of China in 1762.’ She researched Chinese culture – in particular, costume, colour and the cotton markets – and tried to find aesthetic links between ancient China, wartime Germany and present-day pop culture. In a scene where a group of Chinese intellectuals gather for a summit, she used the stage configuration from the TV programme The Weakest Link.

The Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design exhibition of the 12 finalists’ designs runs until 5 January 2008 at the Lyttleton Circle Foyer, National Theatre, London SE1. The four winners are announced on 15 November

Linbury contenders

  • Alyson Cummins 
  • Maureen Freedman
  • Helen Goddard
  • Mika Handley
  • Will Holt
  • Rhys Jarman
  • Garance Marneur
  • Sophie Mosberger
  • Lorna Ritchie
  • Tom Scutt
  • Holly Waddington
  • Claire Winfield

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