I saw quite a bit of theatre in London, England, right before and after the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Beforehand, it was theatre as usual, but afterward it provided a kind of therapeutic activity, one that helped take my mind off the events at hand, at least for short periods of time. That said, I saw a wide range of performances from David Bintley's Still Life at the Penguin Cafe (those are the birds) on a mixed bill by the Birmingham Royal Ballet to Humble Boy, a new play by Charlotte Jones at the National Theatre (this one has the bees).
LD Paul Pyant designed Humble Boy, which stars Diana Rigg and Simon Russell Beale. "It was a natural progression from last year's National Theatre Hamlet in many ways," says Pyant. "Not only because it has overtones of the Shakespeare, but it was written with Simon Russell Beale in mind (who was Hamlet), and has the same production team of John Caird (director), Tim Hatley (set and costume designer), Chris Shutt (sound), and me!"
What starts out as an entertaining family comedy eventually deals with deeper issues as one sees that the family is far from happy on any level. The play is set in a country garden in the Cotswolds. This is the home of the Humble family, and we meet them immediately following the funeral of Mr. Humble senior, the late scientist and beekeeper. His son Felix, a research Fellow at Cambridge working in the realms of astrophysics, is having a hard time coping with his father's death and his own failures in life.
"His mother is being courted by another man who has a daughter who was once in love with Felix--almost the structure of the Hamlet scenario," points out Pyant. "The first act is in several scenes at various times of day and the second is one scene playing from about midday until nightfall."
Humble Boy was performed in the Cottesloe, the smallest space at the National. Also a flexible space, it was arranged in a long thrust so that the audience sits on three sides of a patio. The far end of the space represents the steep banks of a "Wild Flower Meadow," rising sharply upstage, and crowned by a large beehive. "It was decided very early on in the process that all this should appear very real to the audience," says Pyant.
"The long grasses of the Meadow were a labor of love and took a large team of workers a great deal of time to create. (Terrific work by the scenery builders Souvenir of London under the able Simon Kenny.) I think the completed effect is rather dazzlingly beautiful. Those sitting in the nearest rows end up peeping through the long grass and flowers that rim the patio area," he adds. "My job was to place the action at the right time of year and day to make sense of the action, whilst also adding hints of the underlying oddities."
As the Cottesloe has a repertory schedule, with two other shows running with Humble Boy, Pyant tried to use as much of the basic rig supplied by the theatre. He did add additional equipment to cover specific areas, including a dozen Vari*Lite® VL5Bs™ and half a dozen VL6s™. "There are no scrollers in the Cottesloe as it is a very intimate space and any equipment noise is a distraction," he notes. "It is also best only to move the Vari*Lites when covering music or action is taking place."
Pyant also used many gobos (DHA leaf and tree breakups), some of which were used in conjunction with DHA animation discs in order to create an impression of a breeze in the trees. "The scenes progress from the Rosco 06 of midday to the Lee 232 and R09 of the afternoon through to the sunset of L204 to the cool evening of L201 into the night of L200," says Pyant.
He also used underlying supporting color washes of L121/L124 to keep the green of the grasses vibrant, and L204 for an evening glow. "My favorite blue of all time, L120, kept the night suitably romantic," he explains. "The VL5s were used as mobile specials throughout. The VL6s were mainly used for further gobo work, especially the "dust" breakup that I like a lot."
For Pyant, one of the challenges in lighting Humble Boy included trying to make the last scene of the first act a credible move from late afternoon/early evening to midnight in a short space of time. "This took a lot of getting right during the preview period as the play developed," he notes. "Dealing with the Jim the Gardener figure was interesting, not wanting to give too much away too soon, so the idea of stopping and starting the breeze effect whenever he appeared or left the scene was one approach I tried. The moment he is revealed as the ghost of Humble's father is a sudden shift to overtly romantic, heavy on the blue gobo look which I think works well in conjunction with the music."
The last stage direction was also a challenge, as Felix has to remain alone in his thoughts in the garden at night, fulfilling his wish to be up amongst the stars of the galaxies. In the end this was simply achieved by a fiber-optic star cloth on the back wall and hundreds of tiny lights built into the long grass, and the final cue of the show reduces just to Felix in his special and the stars and it is a very effective moment in the show and sends the audience home with a lasting image.
There are also lasting images in Frederick Ashton's ballet Dante Sonata which was on the mixed bill presented by the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) at Sadler's Wells. It was originally choreographed in 1940 as World War II preoccupied Europe. Ashton (1904-1988) was in his mid-thirties at the time, and created a ballet based on his thoughts about goodness and evil and the devastation of war (a timely piece to see the week of September 11).
Using Dante's poem The Inferno as a starting point, Ashton created a ballet with two groups of dancers, Children of Light and Children of Darkness. The work premiered in January 1940 at Sadler's Wells. Interestingly, it is in the new Sadler's Wells theatre that the ballet was seen in London for the first time in over 40 years (dance critic John Percival of The London Times says it may have been performed a few times at Covent Garden right after WWII).
LD Mark Jonathan (who is also head of lighting at the National Theatre where Humble Boy was seen) lit Dante Sonata, as well as The Seasons by David Bintley for BRB's season at Sadler's Wells. Just as the designers that work at the National use the standard lighting rigs in the three theatres there, Jonathan used the permanent rig at Sadler's Wells (consisting of profiles on booms and PAR cans, profiles, and fresnels on overhead bars) with specials added as needed.
"The piece opens with a strong diagonal shaft of light," says Jonathan, who used an Arri 2.5kW HMI to create this long corridor of white light. Another HMI overhead created a powerful circle of light on the stage where DHA "bark" gobos or breakup patterns mirrored the patterns and perspective of a staircase on the painted backdrop. "The drop was designed by Sophie Fedorovitch in 1940 and recreated from photographs and memories," Jonathan explains. "The dancers are caught in the same environment as the backdrop as it is backlit to glow."
Older dancers, who had danced in the piece in the 1940s, were able to help the younger ones with the choreography, and they also had some memories of the lighting for the piece. "It was really quite a challenge," Jonathan notes. "It was like reaching back in time. But basically I was free to create the lighting again. A lot was left open to interpretation."
Jonathan's choice of lighting equipment reflects a more modern approach, for example. "An HMI would not have been used, but it added a crisp clarity and worked very well with the black and white costumes. It is quite a monotone piece." In addition to the white light of the HMI, the color palette for this piece included some deep blues, but mostly L200 and 201.
In lighting The Seasons Jonathan found that the lighting provided the principal visual elements onstage. "There is no set and the piece is stripped back to a pure concentrate of dance, costumes, and music," the designer notes. "There is nothing to lead one visually except the costumes."
Jonathan therefore keyed the light into the colors of the costumes, which follow the seasons from winter and spring to summer and autumn to the score of Verdi's Les Quatres Saisons. "These colors became the lead for the lighting, with watercolor brushstrokes added to the gauze backdrop. There are horizons of light," says Jonathan, whose lighting for this piece is simple yet effective. The gobos used on the backdrop were of his own design and custom-made for him by Rosco in the US. "They were projected from the front as the angle was not right for rear projection," he notes.
"There is a seasonal feel to each movement, yet there are some surprises," Jonathan concludes, indicating that "summer" takes places at dusk rather than in the bright sunshine. "It's more of a fulfilled end-of-the-day feeling that worked better with the yellow costumes."
Completing the bill was Bintley's Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, based on David Day's Doomsday Book of Animals and set to music by Simon Jeffes and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. A bevy of dancer-animals ranges from the penguins (the extinct species, the Great Auk) to woolly monkeys, zebras, and a Utah longhorn ram. The piece seems charming at first, but includes sad moments as animals confront the cruelty of humankind. The colorful lighting is by John B. Read.
Mother Clapp's Molly House is a new play by Mark Ravehill, with music by Matthew Scott. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, with sets by Giles Cadle and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, the play premiered in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National on September 4, 2001.
Set in both the 18th and 21st centuries, Molly deals with notions of sexuality and capitalism (a Molly house being a gay male brothel in 18th-century London). "The play is somewhat of a romp, yet with serious undertones, both social and political, to give it some resonance," says Fisher, who adds that the visual inspiration for the production came from black-and-white period drawings by Hogarth. Fisher's challenge was to translate these into three-dimensional stage pictures.
Another challenge was the fact that Cadle's large wooden set, as handsome as it was, obscured most of the rep plot positions in the Lyttleton. "I had to try to use the rep plot and differentiate between the past and modern times," says Fisher, although only two of the light pipes in the rep plot were usable. For extra positions he added a back light pipe, and duplicated one of the other pipe positions on a bar between two of the set portals.
For the scenes in the 18th century, which had colorful period costumes and male actors cavorting in full-length skirts and petticoats, Fisher wanted to create the look of candlelight or natural light coming in through windows. "It is a loose atmosphere of period lighting without being slavish to it," he says. "I wanted to keep it warm, yet not too orange against the dark wood veneers."
Fisher also placed ETC Source Fours as footlights in the orchestra pit. "This was an instant way of giving a period look," he notes. "It is also a good way to catch faces with crosslight from low angles to sweep across the actors. I also liked the big shadows that were created on the wood, where they looked subtle." He also used two followspots for the musical numbers.
The present-day scenes were lit with cooler colors as the action takes place in a chic urban loft. "I wanted to give it a harder-edged look, yet remain intimate for some overtly sexual scenes," says Fisher, who wanted the lighting to be "discreet, but not too coy. Some of the scenes are also very funny," he adds. "You have to be able to see what people are doing in order to be able to laugh with them."
My London itinerary also included Platonov, at the Almeida, with lighting by Mark Henderson.
This range of theatre and ballet, along with a spirited performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at Royal Albert Hall helped me get through a very difficult week, and confirmed my long-held belief that art can comfort, as well as provoke, the human soul.