A classic revisited in England
February 2001--He may have been nominated for the best lighting Olivier Award for his work on Hamlet at the Royal National Theatre, but it is his lighting for the new West End production of A Long Day's Journey Into Night that is Paul Pyant's favorite amongst his recent projects: "I am enormously happy with it; it is a homogenous, fully realized design that works very well."
Starring Jessica Lange, also Olivier-award nominated for her performance, and Charles Dance, this new production is directed by Robin Phillips, something of a Long Day's veteran with this his third production of the show. Nonetheless, Phillips was more than happy to listen to the contributions of Pyant and his other new collaborator, set designer Simon Higlett, without imposing his own views--though Pyant does recall Phillips watching the entire focus: "That was a bit disconcerting, but at the end of the day, when we didn't have time to start plotting, he thanked me for an enjoyable day!"
Higlett's set departs from David Hay's original Broadway design, which ran the windows around the upstage edge of the playing area. Higlett rotated the living room by ninety degrees, positioning windows on either side of the stage and allowing the audience to see through this room and to the entrance hallway and staircase beyond. Floorboards arranged in a forced-perspective enlarge the rooms. Higlett also departed from the realism some productions of this play have embraced: the walls of his rooms are not solid but constructed of gauze, allowing glimpses through to the world beyond. "The gauze walls were a metaphor for Mary Tyrone's condition, her nerves, suggesting that nothing she did was private," Pyant says.
The gauze did, however, give the lighting designer a challenge: how to provide light through the windows without lighting the gauze walls themselves. "To achieve this, we lit through the windows with Source Four profiles, tightly cut to the windows themselves," says Pyant, who chose ETC's now-familiar spotlight because "it works very, very well." This sharp directional crosslighting, projecting outlines of the windows onto the opposite wall, largely motivates the rest of Pyant's design, though the fact that the window lighting is always from stage right as the play charts the progress from day into night is initially surprising. Explains Pyant, "That's because Robin Phillips is a very geographical director, very clear that those windows were facing south, out to sea, and so always catching light as the sun tracked from east to west; the other windows were facing back into town." Scrollers were fitted to the crosslights, "but all they're really doing is stepping down from 202 to 203 and so on."
The rest of the rig divides into two parts: an overhead rig flown high above the set, nine meters in the air, and a vast collection of around seventy MR16 birdies tucked into the overhead beams of the set. "Access to the rig was a big problem," Pyant recalls, "but production electricians Jeremy Difazio and Stuart Crane thought about it and worked it all out very well, so that we could do everything we needed to." A scattering of Source Fours front-of-house provide front-fill, with five degree units providing tighter, carefully cued specials. Practical lamps--one hanging above the downstage table and table lamps upstage--key the lighting at times, leading the coloring through its variations on either side of white to Rosco 05 for daylight or 06 for electric light at night. The cueing is, for the most part, gentle moves around the stage, which makes the contrast to the sharper cues--motivated by the practical lamps being switched on or off--all the stronger. It is also the practical lamps that gave rise to the only two cues with which Pyant feels dissatisfied--both moments where these lights fade out without any apparent motivation. "Those cues feel very artificial to me," he explains, "but were requested by the director, who was happy with them."
Pyant's lighting also defines the first feel the audience receives of the show, as rolling clouds from VSFX effects projectors (supplied, along with the rest of the rig, by White Light in London) scud across the downstage gauze prior to the show. The effect suggests the view of the sea from the set's windows; the motif is repeated in the breaks between each act, tracking the passing of time as day turns into night and the Tyrone family disintegrates.
The plan was for this American classic to return to Broadway, though rights issues now mean that such a transfer is in doubt. Perhaps Olivier Award wins for those involved might help, even if Pyant's trophy would carry the name of another, equally beautifully lit, production....