Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh 1966-68
Did I feel a trained designer when the time came to leave college? No I did not. But the time had come to take the plunge or change direction. During the last term we all answered adverts in The Stage for assistant design jobs in various reps and also we were all encouraged to enter the Arts Council bursary scheme, which offered year long placements, (about 11 annually) those were the days – and a guarantee of at least one design. It was a lottery where you were sent. To my surprise I was awarded one and ended up art the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. I could not believe my luck. First jobs are so important as they can colour ones experience for years to come.
The Lyceum Theatre Company had been set up the year before with Tom Fleming as artistic director and Abdel Ekhader Farrah as head of design with the idea of replicating Stratford production values. Apparently it hit the financial rocks quite early and Tom Fleming left and he was replaced by Clive Perry with Richard Eyre as his associate. But the structure of the design department and the philosophy, (think Brechtian) that had been set up remained in place and I was able to benefit enormously from it during the two years that I was there. Apart from Farrah, there was his assistant, Hamish Henderson, and two other assistant designers, Andrew Sanders and Ian Watson: my title was Arts Council Design Assistant, which followed the rule: the more junior the post, the longer the title. It made up for the £14 pw wage packet. When I arrived I had no idea what to really expect but I had started my professional life
It was a steep learning curve. The department was run like a co-operative with a group of designers under a head of design. The design work was rotated and we worked on the painting and prop making of each other’s productions. In addition there were two splendid carpenters and an absolutely amazing prop maker. When I arrived the Head of design was Abdul Ekader Farrah who had developed a of very three dimensional house style and an incredibly high standard of carving and finishing but no illusionist scene painting in the traditional sense. Later Geoffrey Scott became Head of Design and the style changed somewhat.
The routine of three weekly rep was gruelling but even as a junior I quickly felt part of a team and working on some very fine productions. I found I had an aptitude for prop making and polystyrene carving which was just coming into its own for 3D work. This was of course long before the days of vac forming. Pretty well everything was made in house with the exception of everyday furniture which was generally trawled from junk shops and the like. Hector Riddle, the head of props was quite outstanding: I remember the Bofors gun he created for Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun was especially impressive. It was the level of care taken on the details that stood out.
An unusual feature of the way that Abdul worked was making models to 1inch =1foot rather than the conventional 1/2inch = 1 foot. His working drawings were equally bold and clear and unfussy. The feel and level of detail that could be achieved with this scale was very great. I made the model for Juno to that format but subsequently saw the practical advantages of the conventional way when I had to transport the models from A to B.
One important lesson I learnt as an assistant was don’t throw scraps of paper away. A distinguished guest designer came to do a Chechov play and rather than provide a model, he gave beautiful water colour renderings of each act and free hand annotated working drawings which it was my job to draw up for the carpenters. This I did and everything was fine until it came to handling the flats. The designer had specified really bulky mouldings high up on very tall flats. These had been made of profiled ply. When it came to standing them up flats were very likely to break. When the designer saw them he questioned the way I had interpreted the designs, and it was only after rescuing his originals from the wastepaper basket that my face was saved. On stage when everything was in position it became obvious why he had chosen the proportions he had. But it was a scary moment.
It was an extremely practical hands on year and was a big change from college where apart from the 3rd year production the course was large creating ‘imaginary’ productions. I found I really enjoyed the process of making and working on other designers work. It helped a great deal that we shared a common vision. ‘Truth to materials’ was a watch word and we never grained a piece of 1/8th ply if we could stain a piece of 6’’ x 1’’. I don’t know how many planks I stained with vandyke or other dyes and scorched with a flame gun and wire brushed. Or how many acres of muslin I cut into small squares to apply to carved polystyrene with hot size glue. One of the most lingering memories any designer / painter has of working pre 1980s was the smell of the workshop: the hot glue, F.E.V. and if you were using ultramarine blue, the smell of bad eggs. The introduction of pva was caused a real cultural shift. Another memory of is of how crude, not to say dangerous a great deal of the stage mechanics were. Hemps sets are a simple idea but they are a huge trust came for anyone standing underneath them.
When the time came to design my first production, Juno and the Paycock, I had at least gained a great deal of practical experience and seen how others did it, but it did not stop it being unnerving.
I will never forget the terror when reality struck and the designs had to be transformed from drawings and models into the real thing. Much of the research for the set was done among the crumbling tenements that were being demolished in Edinburgh at the time. And which were markedly similar to Dublin slums. A great deal of effort was given to making the crumbling textures as real as possible . The argument that audiences do not notice minute detail in a setting is a myth. Not only are they confronted with the set over a long time span, but also those that are close can be very close indeed.
It was a huge privilege to be able to work with such a distinguished company on my first professional production.
My Arts Council bursary expired after designing ‘Juno’, but I was kept on as an Assistant designer for another year which was a great vote of confidence. The way of working remained the same, there may have been a modest pay rise. My next design, ‘The Ha Ha’ by Richard Eyre, came as a complete surprise and was a very different experience to designing ‘Juno and the Paycock’ . It was a brand new play, set in the present and the playwright was the director. On the surface it was quite straight forward, mostly it was set in a side ward of a mental hospital but with one scene set in the board room. There was a wonderful central performance by Angela Pleasance in the role of the disturbed Josephine, but the entire cast which included Rosemary McHale, Miriam Margolyes, Antonia Pemperton and Dorothy Reynols was excellent. If a had my chance again I would have designed it differently, and I feel Richard Eyre wished I had. The text was realistic and I took this literally and produced a set made up of large naturalistic elements when I could have gone done a more suggestive and abstract route, but at the time I could see no other way. It rather went against the delicacy of the production. The production later transferred to the Hampstead Theatre Club, but to my disappointment but not surprise another set designer (Colin Winslow) was employed. If you read this Colin and you have any photos of your designs I would love to see them.
The other memory of it was my first experience of stage mechanics letting the play down when two large scenic trucks collided during a public dress rehearsal. I wanted the world to swallow me up.
The last play that I designed at Edinburgh ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the one that meant most to me as a play. I remember Richard Eyre saying at the read through that this was the most immediately moving drama, and I think that is true. It is wonderful to design and at last I broke out of my naturalistic mode and produced a design that at the time I was very proud of; if I saw it today I would no doubt think otherwise.
All good things come to an end and at the end of that season the company was slimming down and my contract was not renewed. I have to admit it came as a shock, and my next job as resident designer at the Harrogate Theatre was quite different and one where I rarely found the same satisfaction.