British set designer Tim Hatley found himself in the spotlight rather than behind the scenes on February 15, 2002, when the 2002 Olivier Awards were presented in London at Victoria Palace, and were televised by the BBC. Honoring the best of the annual London theatre season, the Oliviers are named after the great, late English actor, Laurence Olivier, and presented by the Society of London Theatre. Hatley took top honors in the set design category for his work on Humble Boy and Private Lives.

Tim Hatley’s set for Humble Boy

Hatley won his first Olivier Award in 1997 for his set designs for Stanley (Pam Gems' play about artist Stanley Spencer) produced in the Cottesloe, the smallest of the three spaces at the Royal National Theatre on London’s South bank. Last year, Hatley was back in the Cottesloe to design the sets and costumes for Charlotte Jones’ new play, Humble Boy, directed by John Caird. Hatley's Olivier-winning set evokes an English garden in full bloom complete with wild flowers and bumblebees. Following its sold-out run at the National, Humble Boy transferred to London’s West End, where it is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre.

"There is something incredibly thrilling about designing a new play for the first time. The canvas is so blank," says Hatley about Humble Boy. "The play was written describing a heavily naturalistic garden. I believed that this play needed an abstraction of a garden. I wanted to create a wild place, emphasizing the beauty of a garden that is wild."

Humble Boy at the Cottesloe

With this in mind, Hatley concentrated on an installation approach, filling the Cottesloe (and now the Giellgud) with tall, bright green grass, leaving a clearing in the center for the action. The actors approach through pathways in the tall grass. "It's a space waiting for a story to happen, and is abstract enough to let the play breathe theatrically, without smothering it with cinematic detail," notes the designer.

Hatley was also honored for his designs for the current London revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Albery Theatre (which means Hatley is currently represented by both plays in the West End. The same production of Private Lives begins preview performances on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on April 19, 2002). "Howard Davies, the director, and I had decided there was little interest in updating the play in terms of its setting," says Hatley. "However I set out to give the production a fresh look, to visually illustrate to a modern audience that this play works for today."

Act One has a breathtakingly tall, whitewashed 1930s hotel facade that stretches toward the sky, with Art Deco balconies adding a touch of elegance. "I wanted to give the audience the feeling that they are looking up at a Deco hotel, on the Riviera," Hatley notes. In Act Two, the false perspective created in Act One is reversed, emphasizing a huge Parisian attic apartment ceiling that leans towards the audience. The primary color of this set is a deep sexy red, lit with dim table lamps, and furnished with bohemian rugs, cushions, and sofas.

The beautiful costumes for Private Lives were designed by award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who also won this year’s Olivier for her work on this production. Just a few days later, she was awarded a BAFTA (British film awards for her costume designs for Gosford Park.

Private Lives opens on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on April 28, 2002, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.
Photo: Alastair Muir

This year’s Olivier Award for best lighting went to Mark Henderson for his work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Albery and The Playboy of the Western World, also in the Cottesloe. "I was shocked, it was really unexpected," says Henderson, who won the Olivier for Best Lighting in 2000 for a group of productions, ranging from Plenty to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and who is currently in rehearsals for the new musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

I’ve seen more than 20 different productions that Henderson has lit over the years including last year’s Pet Shop Boys musical, Closer To Heaven, and his lighting is always picture-perfect. But I do have to wonder why (as is often the case at the Tony Awards as well) the awards for set design and lighting design don’t go hand in hand, as Hatley’s set for Humble Boy positively glowed under Paul Pyant’s delicate yet powerful lighting.

Yet Hatley recognizes the contribution the lighting makes to the overall design effort. "I have extremely close relationships with lighting designers. Their work can transform a design into something extraordinary if approached in the right way," he says. "Both Peter Mumford (Private Lives) and Paul Pyant (Humble Boy) are two of the UK’s best designers, and we work closely to accommodate our differing needs to create a total result."

Does Hatley find a difference in working at the National and in the West End? "The National Theatre is an invaluable resource of ours," he says. "Directors, designers, actors, and writers can work on plays that often cannot be attempted in the commercial West End, where the purpose for putting on work is simply to make money. As a result, the National can afford to takes risks with new plays such as Humble Boy. The National runs plays in repertory for the most part, so a design must take fast show turnarounds into account, unlike the West End."