December 13, 2010
Reja grille in Alcala de Henares
This morning I am seeing Niki Turner to discuss the design of Cardenio.
We meet in the large meeting room in Chapel Lane. I haven't seen Niki since we returned from a research trip to Spain in October. She has brought me some medlars from her garden near Bath. They are the most Shakespearian of fruit. Mercutio refers to them by their expressive country name: 'open-arses'. And sitting in their cardboard punnet, all rude and russet, and full of mellow fruitfulness, we decide they look like a Spanish still life painting by Zurburan.
There is has a huge model box on the table surrounded by little cardboard cut-outs and pieces of perspex and bubble wrap. The model box represents the Swan Theatre, in 1:25 scale. There is always a nerve-wracking moment when you first look at what the designer has placed in the box for you to see. What if they've got it completely wrong, or you hate it? Generally I am surprised, and often relieved, but today I'm thrilled. Niki understands the space. She knows that the theatre itself resists too much set, that it won't be ignored for itself. We settle in front of the model box. I love this bit of my job. We have the whole morning to sit and play. Perhaps it excites something of our childhood fascination for dolls' houses and train sets. For me it recalls the Pollock's Theatre I used to play with for hours.
There are lots of references to things we saw in Spain: the great altar screen in Toledo Cathedral, the faces from the magnificent El Greco painting The Burial of the Count Orgaz, the capering characters from Goya's haunting picture The Burial of the Sardine or the brooding menace of his black paintings in the Prado. The window grills in Alcala de Henares and the household brassier from Cervantes' birthplace.
Niki and her design assistant (Lily) have modelled up various elements, sometimes quite roughly, and sometimes with wonderful ingenuity: the base of one of the little chairs is a small coin; the crown on the tiny statue of the virgin Mary is a bead, and the water jug on the table is cut from a length of plastic piping. We push things around the box, and throw things out, rip up bits of paper and introduce new elements. Her design allows me a lot of flexibility, while at the same time creating the stratification of the Society which is so particularly described in Cervantes' novel.
After a couple of hours, we give our production manager Mark Graham a call. I first worked with Mark as far back as 1992 when I directed Homer's The Odyssey in Derek Walcott's adaptation in TOP (The Other Place - our then studio theatre). We chat him through the story, and how we think the set might be used. There are lots of problems to solve: how to string up something in mid air over the audiences' heads, how to create at least the illusion of candles or firecrackers, how maybe to have a metal floor without the edges curling up and slicing people's toes - as he knows can happen from past experience. But I know that he is endlessly resourceful, tireless in his pursuit of clever ways to make the impossible possible, and can bring Cardenio to life...
by Greg Doran
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