LD Jean Kalman creates a stark vision of Belfast
for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game

In many ways The Beautiful Game is not a typical West End production, yet Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newest musical has been quite successful since it opened at London’s Cambridge Theatre last fall. The action is set in Belfast, Ireland, in 1969, as the members of a Catholic school football team (soccer in the US) have their lives shattered as they encounter the first wave of hatred and death caused by the religious strife that would eventually tear their country apart.

One of the most unusual aspects of this production is that its Canadian director Robert Carsen, its Canadian set designer Michael Levine, and its French lighting designer Jean Kalman work primarily in opera (in fact this is Kalman’s first musical). But they are a closely knit team, having collaborated on more than a dozen occasions at opera houses around the world, and bring a sharp focus to the production.

"The whole idea is challenging," says Kalman, who lives in Paris. "It started when we did a workshop in the Cambridge Theatre on an empty stage. It went so well we knew it should go in this direction. We didn’t want to destroy it with too much set or special effects." So the audience enters the theatre and sees an empty stage, right? Well, not exactly. What they do see is a recreation of the empty stage.

"It was a lot of work for Michael Levine to create a believable empty stage, with the quality of a street," adds Kalman, speaking on a cell phone from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, where he was lighting a production of Tristan und Isolde for the Nederlandse Opera. "In fact, the whole thing is a huge set with windows that open to reveal an Irish landscape in one scene. You need the fake walls so you can have light boxes behind them."

For Kalman, the fake walls were essential to the success of his design, as they not only create the environment for the production, but also hide the lighting equipment. "What you see is any empty theatre without any of its technology showing," he says.

Filling the void

Once this concept was established, Levine and Kalman worked to create smaller environments within the empty space. Much of this was a task achieved by the lighting. For, while the instruments cannot be seen, there is a rig of over 350 units, combining conventional fixtures with scrollers and automated luminaires, all run by a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console. The lighting package was supplied by London’s White Light Ltd. and The Moving Light Company, and Vari-Lite Production Services Ltd.

"There is lots of equipment and it is squeezed into every possible corner," says Kalman, who worked closely with London-based assistant lighting designer Alistair Grant on the fixture choices. "I lean toward large HMI fresnels on yokes," admits Kalman, referring to the 5kW units he would choose for an opera.

In this case, they would have been hard to squeeze into the confines of a West End backstage (he did manage to squeeze in two Arri 5kW fresnels), so Grant suggested a mix of Vari*Lite® luminaires (VL2416™ HMI and VL5B™ tungsten sources) as well as Martin Professional PAL 1200s for the automated tasks. "Using two together can have the same effect as a bigger fresnel," concedes Kalman. "And more is even better. I had a cluster of four and it was beautiful."

The tungsten VL5Bs were used as washes, or, as Kalman describes it, "to help pick up people and details," while he found the HMI VL2416 good for "directional backlight or crosslight. I like strong directional light, so I like to use larger sources and Light Curtains."

He admits to a little frustration with the Vari*Lite color choices and prefers a CYM color-mixing system. "This allows you to explore many more possibilities," Kalman adds, although he did manage to mix the HMI and tungsten lamps with various filters to create the equivalent of HMI light with Lee 201 color correction.

One fixture Kalman especially liked is the DHA Digital Light Curtain. "I like them so much I brought them to Amsterdam for Tristan und Isolde," he notes, adding that he also plans to use them for a modern opera, Alice in Wonderland, which he is currently designing, also for the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam in August 2001.

Lighting the locations

The empty stage for The Beautiful Game serves as various locales, from deserted Belfast streets to a locker room, a bedroom, and a living room. "For the street scenes, there is a darkish backlit atmosphere," says Kalman. When the back wall opens for a chilling death scene, the little bit of light behind the wall seems momentarily blinding in comparison. "It looks bright since the stage is so dark."

In street scenes with chases or explosions, Kalman used Martin PAL 1200s, depending on their shutters for sharp edges as well as a broken feeling in the light. "What is interesting about these fixtures is that you can control how much light hits the ground at any moment."

Some of the most interesting scenes in the musical are those where the boys are on the playing field, their movements beautifully choreographed in a dance-cum-sport fashion by Meryl Tankard.

"This is where the light curtains were crucial. They were placed on the floor like sidelight for ballet," notes Kalman.

The show’s color palette often ran from cool blue to open white or frost, with the color changing progressively thanks to the scrollers. Kalman added other colors as well, such as a dark green (in the VL2416s) around the edges of the "rooms" created onstage by squares of light. "You don’t really see the green as a color," he explains, "you just feel it."

Kalman also added dark blue for the romantic scenes. "How can you play a love scene on an empty stage, where there is no romantic feeling?" he asks, speaking as a true Frenchman. "If you wash the stage in dark blue you lose the feeling that it is just an open space."

Conventional fixtures, including ETC Source Fours and Thomas PAR cans, were used to define the edges of the "rooms" onstage. "To do this you need a lot of light," says Kalman, who used sharp angles in his crosslight. "There is no masking, so the overhead positions were very high," he points out. "It wasn’t always easy to find the correct angles, so we needed a lot of instruments to fill the squares of light, especially to create the locker room."

Kalman admits that his way of working is not typical to the West End, and may have created an unusual experience for Grant and the crew. On the other hand, Kalman felt a luxury in the time allowed in the theatre. "We had two or three weeks to light and another two or three weeks of previews," he says, comparing that to the much shorter periods of time allowed in the opera house. "I loved it; the working conditions were incredible. They should be the same for opera, where the productions are meant to last."

Photos: ©Ivan Kynel.