A corpse swings above the center of the stage. Downstage, people in black surround a trap that opens to absorb the body of King Henry V. “We mourn in black. Why not we mourn in blood,” the Duke of Exeter exclaims, heralding the beginning of the 13-hour bloody epic that the Royal Shakespeare Company brought to the Power Center in Ann Arbor, MI, in March.

For scenic and costume designer Tom Piper, the flow of time became a major element in creating a world for the tetralogy that includes King Henry VI Parts One to Three and Richard III. “It's not about creating static pictures,” says Piper, whose design evolved with the action but did not illustrate it. Scenes that occur on battlegrounds and in Parliament, at a funeral and a coronation, in a tower and on a boat, all take place on what, at stage level, is the same set. A large steel cylinder, resembling an oversized rusted-out water heater, dominates the back, looking more industrial than regal, more abstract than specific.

Piper used real materials to insure the sound and feel of hard, cold steel. With tall ladders pressing close to it, a clanking door or “hell gate” at the lowest level, and tiered openings for multi-level scenes, it becomes an important playing space. The 16-ton structure was shipped from England.

Much of the action is vertical, originally blocked for the Swan Theatre, with its three balconies. Perhaps taking his cue from Talbot, whose military strategy dictates “that we do make our entrance several ways,” director Michael Boyd has actors enter from above and below the stage as well as from the house and conventional stage entrances. They fly in. They crawl up. They hang. They swing. They climb.

At the risk of being splattered with stage blood, some spectators sat on the stage, but the majority faced the action from the auditorium, leaving most of the floor open for acting. Piper's design emerged from above, with everything from ladders, bright blue streamers, and red and white roses to twisted bodies flying in. Some scenery appeared to be beneath the stage, too, in traps that become bodies of water and graves. Characters who have been mangled and murdered in these stories return, sometimes entering from below.

Verticality Onstage

With its tense narrative, gory spectacle, and many locales, Part One was an Elizabethan megahit. But Piper, who compares it to a movie, avoided movie realism. “You are able to use objects onstage that an audience can make-believe into something else. Ladders are winched into the air in a sort of abstracted siege,” he says, “and the same ladders become almost like the bars in a prison scene.” The spare set interacts with the actors, who use its moving parts, changing the composition as they do.

Piper looked at war photos, books about witchcraft and persecution, period images of torture, and artwork that included “The Journey Into Hell,” by Bosch, who painted at the time of the War of the Roses, and Rembrandt's “Descent From the Cross,” which shares the verticality of the production.

Boyd felt the productions, done initially in the 450-seat, courtyard-space Swan, lost some of their “claustrophobic intimacy” at the Power, but he says the bigger space brought out the bigger picture. Piper took advantage of the grungy concrete walls behind the new stage, opting not to mask them.

Changing Stations

Treating the characters almost like allegorical figures, Piper didn't change their clothes as time passed, nor did he distress those clothes after battles. Rather, one garment signified each character — something that helped audiences keep them straight — and characters changed clothes only when they changed station. Logistics, including a limited budget, played a part in that decision. And Piper couldn't find enough fabrics in London to do what he wanted to do for the 200 costumes the plays require.

Piper looked at Renaissance and contemporary shapes, and based many costumes on the commonality he found “to create the smell of period without historical accuracy.” World War I-influenced costumes for soldiers, with puttees and helmets, included an under-jerkin garment with a quilted feel for the French and a fencing jacket for the English. The rope and ladder work made real armor undesirable, so Piper created a metallic look without using metal, and usually opted for simple silhouettes.

In Richard III, Piper created an instant image of Elizabeth, dressed in an over-the-top golden gown, with sickly green speckles that prepare for the descent into decadence. Royalty always wore some gold; the French dauphin appears in royal blue, with small gold dots on the fabric. And many characters wear black, not surprising in productions where a good many people onstage are dead or in mourning.

Boyd double-cast the show, for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. The same actor as two characters brings grief in two plays, for instance, and another actor is betrayed in three. Piper allowed costume ideas for one character to influence those for the next character the same actor played, subliminally suggesting a relationship. Joan of Arc, for instance, wears a white dress with a metallic-looking vest. Margaret emerges in the same dress, cut from sensual red velvet. Costumes notwithstanding, the RSC actors achieved striking transformations as they moved from character to character, and they did more to define each character than to associate one with another.

An Emotional Landscape

Although props occasionally dot the stage — a bed rolls in and out, a turquoise sheet doubles as the sea, a severed arm becomes a weapon — Heather Carson's wildly imaginative lighting and Andrea J. Cox's terrifying soundscape marked most scene changes.

The company had been working on the tetralogy for over four months when Carson came on the scene to find “realistic, sumptuous, and detailed” costumes on an “abstract, spare, and hard” set. The plays, she decided, were about “the desire for power at any cost” and her lights would have to reflect “the seductiveness of desire, contrasted with the harshness of reality.”

Carson structured the lighting for variety and contrast, giving each warring faction its own vocabulary and letting power shifts determine lighting shifts. Hard, directional white lighting for the English often contrasted with cold, mushy lighting for the French, although divisions weren't rigid. As the world gets more chaotic towards the end of Part Two, Carson bleached color out and moved from lush lighting to a more industrial language, which escalated through Part Three and into Richard III.

To suggest Henry's innocence and the gaze of God, she used an overhead sunlike film light, often golden in scenes that featured Henry, shifting tints when others took the stage. Downlights with scrollers from four corners allowed slight color shifts. Overhead, she used some daylight-balanced movie HMIs, which are rarely used in theatre because they're too expensive and hard to control. She was happy, however, to “pick the right thing, put it in the right place, and let it do what it does.”

Carson isolated acting areas by dangling 10 slim photography floodlights, Lowel V-Lights, on long poles, just high enough to clear a sword swung overhead. “The proximity to actors is unusual and enables you to create a weird, intimate feeling although the light produced is rather exposing and sterile,” she explains. “Next I put in nine single hanging bulbs, old-style carbon-arc filament bulbs.” These glowed and swirled, becoming “a kind of talismanic, metaphysical element used often when the dead magically arise and walk off the stage and in the funeral, and conversely also a domestic, interior candlelike object used in more intimate scenes.”

Three clusters of seven daylight bare bulbs, very bright photographer bulbs, looked a little like crowns. These were originally bare, but were encased in a fine mesh to protect actors in aerial motion. Carson achieved an intense metal-halide look in Richard III with new Enliten Source Four exhibition PAR 575MSDs, a product Enliten developed in collaboration with ETC.

Piper says Carson's “response to the space is almost like an installation artist,” who created light atmospheres the artistic team and company could use. Difficulties with flying ladders, ropes, and people swinging about didn't stop her from dropping lights into the space. “Everything,” notes Piper, “is in there and in view and all integrated together — the musicians, the lighting, the props.”

“I wanted the lights to be on every level top to bottom, from the center to the edges and to descend into the space,” Carson says. “Where they are is visual art to me.” Her placement was extreme and unexpected, so that lights became part of the disjointed world of the plays, illuminating the action from different angles and in different ways, and constantly surprising spectators, who never knew where light would come from next. It may also have disoriented actors who dipped in and out of shadows, not always able to find the small V-lights. It also contained the audience, particularly the onstage audience, in the space.

A Musical Voice

Composer Jimmy Jones, a percussionist with the RSC band, was in rehearsal from day one, “creating a soundscape rather than doing real music.” Jones tested and revised ideas throughout the process, collecting equipment and finding ways to use it. “We tried different instruments before landing on a language,” he says. “Michael wanted it to be dominated by percussion, but not snare drums and cymbals.” Instruments included scrap metal and dinner gongs, which were scraped, hit, and bowed rather than played in any conventional sense. Jones's music seemed to puncture the experience as well as punctuate and comment on it. The composer says he wanted to add another voice to the ensemble, “a musical voice.”

He used Brazilian Samba rhythms, carnival music that supported the acrobatic mise-en-scene, for battles, avoiding a militaristic sound. “We thought it kind of a nice thing to have carnival dance music accompanying people flailing swords around. We don't just do the fast, we do the slow, which is called Samba Reggae,” a relentless rhythm he used as armies approached. The score also included Mexican folk tunes, which “combines a sort of innocence and a little penny-whistle theme with the threatening quality of a deep drum called a bombo.”

Percussionist Kevin Waterman and clarinetist Ted Watson sat on the highest tier of the metal construction with Jones during performances, dimly lit but in full view. They joined the mix later in rehearsals, along with sound designer Cox, who amplified and enhanced what Jones had done, adding bits of electronic sound. For the most part, Jones says, “Michael wanted real, organic sound.” The crashing of broad swords, marching, wild birds or animals, shrill noises, and running water were among the various sounds that often startled and sometimes frightened spectators.

The University Musical Society, an independent booking organization loosely affiliated with the University of Michigan, has brought top-notch theatre to Ann Arbor over the years, including the Stratford and Shaw festivals from Canada, the Gate Theatre of Dublin, and the American Repertory and Guthrie Theatres. UMS president Ken Fischer says people came from three countries and 21 states to see the RSC.

Photos: Heather Carson