It seems as if it’s always (at least) two by Hugh. Hugh Vanstone that is, one of the UK’s most elegant and prolific lighting designers. This time it’s two productions seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: the recent Donmar Warehouse versions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, imported fresh from London and directed by the director of the moment, Sam Mendes, with sets by Anthony Ward, costumes by Mark Thompson, and sound by Paul Arditti.
Both productions were seen in rotation at the Donmar last fall, and that is how they were presented at BAM, with one large (and outstanding) cast playing roles in each play. "They were absolutely designed together," says Vanstone, of the two plays. "They were always thought of as a double bill. In terms of the lighting they are linked by a common rig, yet the treatment in each play is very different."
Uncle Vanya is, of course, a Chekhovian classic in which everyone seems to be longing for something or someone they cannot have. "In Vanya, we were striving for simplicity," says Vanstone, who gave the interior scenes a candlelit feeling. The action is framed by an upstage wheat field, whose possible decay echoes the sense of decay in the household itself. "The wheat puts the whole thing in context," says Vanstone, who lit the wheat to look fresh and bright at the beginning of the play. "It looks more drab at the end," he adds. "The wheat doesn’t change, the lighting does." There are also White Light's VSFX optical effects projectors with fleecy cloud disks highlighting the wheat.
Vanstone used a lot of crosslight, with Lee 201 (full CT blue) in ETC Source Fours (replacing PAR cans used at the Donmar where the throw was shorter), and L203 (quarter CT blue) as backlight. Additional Source Fours with color scrollers provide low-angle sidelight, a position Vanstone uses to advantage here. "There are also birdies as footlights in both plays," he says. "This helps emphasize the candlelight idea."
The rig includes six Vari*Lite® VL1000s™ used for adding texture in both plays, with gobo washes on both the floors and the people. There are also 14 VL5Bs™ utilized mainly as specials on the actors. "I am continuing my current love affair with tungsten moving lights," says Vanstone. There is also haze in the air, created by MDG Atmosphere machines.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s tale of mistaken identities and love with a happy ending, the set is covered with flickering candles, both in hanging glass cylinders (of Ward’s design) and on the floor, continuing upstage as a large sea of water with flickering reflections. "The candles serve to frame the whole evening with a warm and intimate feeling," Vanstone explains. Yet he gave each scene its own look; for example, using L201 and R83 (medium blue), to add a cool, almost church-like feel to Olivia’s court. Orsino’s court is lit warmer, yet mostly white. In a scene where Malvolio is kept in total darkness, Vanstone kept it light enough for all to see. "It is a comedy, after all," he says.
The only set piece in Twelfth Night is a large gilded picture frame that sits center stage. "The frame is used to show the object of their desires as the various characters reveal their emotions," notes Vanstone. He also used Source Fours to light the perimeter of the frame to glitter along the edge, with additional Source Fours hung overhead slightly behind and in front of the frame.
The lighting control at BAM is a Strand 550 series desk, the same as at the Donmar. "This helped facilitate the move," says Vanstone, who was unable to come to New York for the transfer. "There was incredibly little time to retech the shows," he notes. The lighting was recreated for BAM by David Holmes, who served as Vanstone’s associate in London.
"The transfer ultimately went well," says Holmes. "One of the biggest challenges was the size of the theatre. At the Donmar, there are no more than three rows of audience wherever you are sitting, and there is audience of three sides of the playing area. In Twelfth Night especially there was not much but the lighting to set the scene and it was handled very delicately and looked gorgeous, but that kind of style was quite tricky to transfer into a bigger proscenium theatre. Tiny spots of color wouldn’t register there."
To cope with the larger space, Holmes added a front-of-house rig with extra face lights for the actors, as well as two City Theatrical AutoYokes on Source Fours atop the box boom positions. "We wanted a tungsten source in the front-of-house position to light the actors in hard-to-reach places, as the show was reblocked to take into account the large upstage area we didn’t have at the Donmar," Holmes explains. "The VL5Bs provide mostly sidelight."
"We only had two weeks to get both shows in," he adds, noting that the crew at BAM was very understanding about the time contraints. Programmer David Plater came from London with Holmes to get everything up and running in Brooklyn, where both Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night looked perfectly at home in the shabby chic surroundings of the Harvey Theatre.