the unsafe environment

Tomorrow James Slater and I travel to Bristol to deliver the model of the set for The Mare’s Tale to Neil Tilley at Stage Electrics, who will be supervising the building of the full-size version. This photograph is just a snapshot showing the model in a straight forward manner, but I know that when we get the set onto the stage, there will be a lot of potential for creating atmospheric lighting effects on it. The model has been painted a simple grey so that the structure is clear, but once the set has been installed at Theatr Brycheiniog, I’ll think further about the paint finish.

The stage set needs to be expressive of many ideas. Set during the World War II bombing of London that architect Morgan Seyes and his wife Jane are fleeing, the broken flights of steps twisting on themselves, the crooked bannisters and the perilously balanced chair, mirror Morgan’s descriptions of buildings eviscerated by the blasts. When the narrative moves to Wales, the same set must convey Morgan’s inner anguish and the need to escape the un-named fears that beset him. He retreats from the community, isolating himself in the process. (Have you ever noticed how in films, whenever a character makes a headlong dash from pursuit, the route seems always to lead upwards?)

Narrator Eric Roberts will need to be completely at ease on this awkward structure, and so we’ve arranged that he’ll be working on it from the start of rehearsals on August 26th, in order to familiarise himself with its eccentricities. These are not steps to be climbed with ease, but rather scrambled up, like a cliff-face.

From the days when I was a teenager scouring the art-house cinemas of London for early films, my passion was for the German Expressionists, who had an absolute obsession with stairs and stairwells.

Pandora’s Box (1929)

The Golem (1920)

Hintertreppe (1921)

Those physically, mentally and even morally deranged cinematic worlds, had the greatest impact on me when I was finding my creative way in the theatre. In 1986 when an opportunity at long last came my way, I re-imagined German Expressionism through the lens of American Film Noir in a production of Little Shop of Horrors that I directed and designed at Theatr Clwyd.

The set (see the model above) was all crazed angles, un-level floors and multiple stairways at too-steep angles. Even the black and white floor-tiles were on the move, sucked to the cellar/vortex at front centre stage, where the carnivore plant was secretly nurtured by harried florist’s assistant, Seymour Krelborn. The cast clung to rails and walls for dear life as they tottered down the many stairs and negotiated the ground level that I’d raised to a rake so steep that it was possible for anyone standing still to start sliding down it.  As a consequence the performances felt steeped in neurosis and the sense of imminent disaster.  I never better enjoyed directing a production than this one. The cast were outstanding. Indeed, the whole production team were.

Above: drawings exploring lighting effects on the set.

Below: a detail of the finished Little Shop set, illustrating the artistry of the Theatre Clwyd scenic department.

More on German Expressionism in my next post.

6 thoughts on “the unsafe environment

  1. I really have only seen some Murnau, and some things from movie-mania days that I’ve mostly forgotten, having a head like a sieve. Is there actually a print of “The Golem”?

    These hint at your own retreat time as a semi-hermit, don’t they? The idea of staircases, going up or up into nothing, fits very well with a ruined tower. Absent or rotted-away staircases are interesting as well: ghost stairs. Your set could be the interior of a tower.

  2. I think your set also has a human shape to it, a person attempting to rise from sitting but struggling with legs that no longer support them under long pleated skirts.

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