In Memoriam: John Bury John Bury, a set, lighting, and costume designer who enjoyed extremely long and fruitful collaborations with UK directors John Littlewood and Sir Peter Hall and who is probably best known in the US for his Tony Award - winning sets and lights for Amadeus in 1981, died Sunday, November 12 in Gloucestershire, England. He was 75. The cause was pneumonia brought on by heart disease.
Born in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1925, Bury started out at Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, London, just after the war in 1947, serving in a number of different roles. "I didn't just design," he said in a Theatre Crafts profile in 1992. "I lit, I stage managed. Lit the boilers. We just couldn't employ designers. Occasionally when we got other people there was always trouble, because they turned out these designs on bits of paper. And it was no use to me, because I had nobody to build it." Bury's early sets were usually made out of found objects combined with scenery discarded from other productions. He worked on over 60 productions at Theatre Workshop, including A Taste of Honey and Oh, What a Lovely War! before leaving in 1963 to join Hall's fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company.
Beginning first as an associate designer and then head of design, Bury and Hall enjoyed a healthy and successful collaboration at the RSC from the first production, a widely praised "Wars of the Roses" cycle featuring an all-metal set, to their final effort, All Over in 1972. "I like to think my aesthetic stayed the same," he told Theatre Crafts of his transition to the RSC. "With the same objectives. Of course, I had many more resources at the RSC and people to do things. I had the advantage of a lot of skilled cutters and tailors." Bury never made sketches, preferring to build as he went along. He considered the early years at RSC as "the apogee of my career, from 62-70. I never actually had the facilities again to work the same way. There were always too many other things getting in the way." His 1965 design for Hamlet, with "a great black and gray marble floor and big arches all around," was among his favorite works from that period.
Bury would occasionally work on other projects outside of the RSC. His 30-year relationship with Hall, Bury once said, was non-exclusive, "but long-term, like a marriage, with flirtations." In the early 70s he designed the sets for such Broadway productions as The Rothschilds, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and most notoriously, the sci-fi musical Via Galactica. "It was high-tech stuff, pretty advanced for those days," he told Theatre Crafts. "It was pretty stunning, with a floor all made of trampolines, with pink projected flowers. There were space figures with machines on their heads." He also noted that the technical requirements of the show "ran it into the ground."
When Hall moved to the National Theatre in 1973, Bury followed. The pair worked continuously during the ensuing 12 years, both at the National and at the Glyndebourne Opera House. Their most successful project during that period was Amadeus in 1979, which transferred to Broadway and earned Bury Tonys for lighting and set design.
Bury left the National in 1985 and spent much of the rest of his career in opera, working on such projects as Salome for the Royal Opera House in 1988, the Washington Opera in 1990, and the San Francisco Opera in 1993; Carmen for Glyndebourne in 1987; and Orfeo and A Midsummer Night's Dream for Glyndebourne in 1989. He was working on a revival of Midsummer with Sir Peter at the time of his death.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, who served as a collaborator on his designs for many years, and his four children, Christopher, Adam, Abigail, and Matthew.
"I try not to get in the director's way," John Bury once said. "An artist should never be aware of his best qualities. I always strove to serve, not put myself forward. I've been successful in life by being responsible. The job of a designer is much more than being clever."