is a new exhibition at the Theatre Museum, Russell Street, Covent Garden, in London, England, celebrating Michael Northen's pivotal role as one of Britain’s first lighting designers. Drawn from his personal collection, generously donated to the Museum by Robert Camac, and other sources, it illuminates Northen's illustrious career spanning six decades.
Michael Northen (1921–2001) began in stage management at the Q Theatre in 1938 where he met designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and then did wartime service in the R.A.F. including a tour of India as stage manager for the Gang Show. Post-war he worked as production assistant at the Royal Opera House on many ballets and operas including The Queen of Spades whose décor he supervised in the absence of the designer Oliver Messel.
Northen gained credit as the first lighting designer in the British theatre to receive billing as such in Gielgud's 1950 King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon. There he worked with leading artists including Tyrone Guthrie, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Vivien Leigh, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft and on landmark productions such as Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus and Peter Hall's Cymbeline.
He also collaborated with John Piper, lighting his designs notably for the world premiere of Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw at La Fenice, Venice in 1954; the premiere of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House for which he was also technical advisor, and Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne.
The 300 productions that Northen was associated with during his career included West End stars like Gladys Cooper, Dame Sybil Thorndike and Dame Anna Neagle, hit shows such as The Canterbury Tales and spectacular pantomimes at the London Coliseum presented by Harold Fielding . He also re-lit The Mousetrap and designed the Son et Lumiere at Caernavon Castle following the Prince of Wales' s Investiture.
He also founded the Association of Lighting Designers with Joe Davis, succeeding him as chairman, and then as president in 1995. From an initial handful, the membership has grown world-wide to around 800 today. As Joe Davis observed: 'Don't you boys forget, it was Michael and me who started this lighting racket.'
Northen retired to the Cotswolds in 1977 and was awarded an MBE in 2001 for services to Lighting Design and to Theatre. He characteristically marked the occasion by offering an annual scholarship to a student of Theatre Lighting Design, and a contribution to Light Relief - the fund set up to help people in the industry who have fallen into difficulties.