The Titus Andronicus designer discusses his vision for the play and how it becomes a reality.
How did you become a theatre designer?
I went to arts school in Bath to do painting for a while, but then became more interested in theatre so I transferred to a theatre design degree in Nottingham. The first thing I ever designed was an avant-garde performance at the Bath Fringe Festival with other students – it had a dead swan!
What does a designer do?
Everything that you see on stage – props, costumes, set – has been chosen specifically for the production, and it is the designer who has made these choices, which you hope add up to something that tells the story.
What advice would you give to any potential theatre designers?
Make sure it is something that you are passionate about. Go see as much as possible. Have a go with friends. Put shows on for no money in strange places. The job is the same if it is in a ‘found’ space with no money or the Royal Opera House. Practise your practice.
How do you work with the rest of the creative team?
You’re there at the start, normally the second person on board after the director, so you start right at the beginning with the conceptual conversations. At some point, you explore in model or drawing form until you are ready to share with the rest of the technical teams; that’s when you start to explore the budget and timings. There is a lot of collaboration across the team for the show.
When rehearsals begin, you are supporting the rehearsal room whilst overseeing the design work happening outside of it in the workshops. Typically, I visit the rehearsal room at least once a week and attend the run throughs; it depends on the project. There is always a lot to be done outside of the rehearsal room, but you don’t want to drift too far from the mother ship.
What is the vision for the design of Titus Andronicus?
Designing these four Roman plays is hugely exciting and challenging. I am designing them individually and across the four to ensure they have a rigorous dialogue with each other. They must add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Shakespeare never intended these plays to be together; they were written at very different times and so are tonally very individual. Titus is the younger Shakespeare; it was written very early. It has an immediacy and visceral quality. It’s the most current. It’s not based on a historical figure so it is an invented now. It was Shakespeare’s ‘what if’ and it is our what if as we see a society destroying itself from inside.
What inspired you with this design?
In designing it we talked through the contemporary resonances of abusive power and lack of leadership. Amoral political choices. The whole season is the demonstration of the consequences when a decision made leads to the absolute opposite of your intended outcome.
Is working in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre a challenge?
The RST is a space which can take and asks for a lot more design intervention compared to the Swan, so you can go big.
What’s been your greatest challenge with Titus Andronicus?
Chopping a hand off on stage, dealing with the amount of blood onstage. At this point, just before the start of technical rehearsals, it feels like the most challenging of the four technically.
Titus Andronicus plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2 September, before moving to the Barbican in London.