Director Rupert Goold created an Arctic wilderness island with mariners in oilskins.

The play opened with a shipping forecast and a gauze showing a radio. Through the radio's speaker, the audience glimpsed the last moments on-board before the shipwrecking. Projections of waves on moving curtains created atmospheric scene changes.

A ragged Prospero sits next to Miranda, who looks at him intently.
Photo by Manuel Harlan shows Patrick Stewart as Prospero and Mariah Gale as Miranda in the RSC's 2006 production of The Tempest.

Patrick Stewart's Prospero wore furs and had delicate tattooed patterns running across his head, inspired by traditional Inuit designs.

Caliban (John Light) was a strong wild-man in shackles and Ariel (Julian Bleach) was a drifting black-robed figure with a ghostly white face. Ariel first appeared as a head emerging from a barrel in Prospero's log-cabin cell, and he later emerged from a whale carcass, dripping blood and bones.

Q and A with Set Designer Giles Cadle

What is useful from a director in terms of input and what would you rather they didn't do?

With something like Shakespeare, it's better the director comes with a view of what they want you to do with the play because it's been done so many times. You need to have a vague idea of which way to go with it - otherwise you have nothing.

What themes or emotional qualities in The Tempest did you want to draw out through the design?

It was about making the island into a place where these things could happen, giving it a real sense but also a surreal sense that enabled the activities of the magical world to happen.

Can you explain more about how that came out in the design?

Yes. There are lots of scenes in the play that had to be addressed. They seem to take place in parts of the island but at the same time within the same location. So there was that to be solved. Rupert was keen on some kind of endless landscape, which is very hard to do on stage. Any sort of natural object on stage doesn't look right! Also there's the constraint that this show has to play in repertoire. The floor has to break into very small pieces [so it can be moved into and out of the theatre quickly]. So you can't do a snowy floor. I was trying to take an environment that at first glance looks quite naturalistic but in reality is abstract. Something that doesn't look wrong but doesn't look right...

How do you work?

I do lots of sketches or little storyboards. It's very important to break the play down into bite-sized pieces, the different scenes and people who need to be on-stage, how they might get onto the stage, the architecture of how the play might be directed, let alone what it looks like. What it looks like is sometimes the last thing I come to.

We're designing three months before rehearsals start. I sketch predominantly just to get things moving very quickly, and then we build maquettes and scale models, and I do draft on a computer.

How did you work with Nicky Gillibrand (Costume designer)? Often there is only one designer doing both the set and the costumes. Why was the decision made to have both of you?

I've worked with Nicky many times before and I think she's the best costume designer in the business. I'd ask her to do everything that I do – because she can do it so much better than me! Some directors are keen to split the scenes and the costumes because doing both, it's very hard to service the director in terms of being in two places at the same time. Once you're on-stage, there's a lot of running around. I do costumes half the time when I design, and half the time I don't.

In terms of staging a play, you can update the context for a contemporary audience. But the setting for this production is both familiar and strange at the same time. How did you and Rupert arrive at that?

My view on period costumes or period settings is that sometimes I find them a distraction, they don't let you into the play. I don't mean that you have to update the play just for the sake of it but you need to have some understanding of why people are doing things or what their actions are and not see it as some kind of museum piece.

You mean they look like they're in fancy-dress?

Yes. Sometimes it's valid and it works very well but I find it quite hard to watch people in tights - I can't take them seriously!

It's always about finding a language in which you can communicate things. Sometimes ultra-modern is equally problematic because then you have to make comment about the environment in which it's set.

At the beginning of the play, the set give you the sense of being in a cinema. How did you come up with that idea?

We [Rupert and I] both liked the idea of a nightmare – it's a nightmarish play, strange things happen and it does feel a bit like one of those scary Hitchcock movies. So we started off with that context. The play almost starts twice: with the storm, then it starts again with everybody arriving at the island. The storm is almost like a trailer to the play, so we thought we could divide the two.

Why did you decide to use video projection in the production?

You have to change the scenes quickly. We use a wipe device, just a curtain passed in front of the stage. It's very filmic, and in order to make it look a bit more interesting, not just a black object, we used video.

Lorna Heavey [the video designer] animated the curtain in a beautiful way. It took a long time to fine-tune. It's not an easy thing that you can alter quickly. It developed over a period of time. It's something that you note, take away, come back to... and hope things haven't changed in the time between!

Q and A with Costume Designer Nicky Gillibrand

How did you prepare for meeting with a director?

Normally I would read the play quite a lot, but if it's an initial meeting there's not much you can do until the director has told you or given you some idea of where he or she wants to go with it.

I automatically make my own assumptions about the play then working with the director you hope it'll come together and you can start going down the same path.

Initially it's a case of me reading about it and then having my first meeting. If it's a director I know, then I know the way they'll go anyway, and you might have a couple of phone conversations. For instance, Richard Jones will always throw loads of adjectives at me, and then that's fine because I can take that away. But in this case, I hadn't worked with Rupert before so I didn't have an idea of what his process was. I think it's quite unusual at the RSC to have a costume designer and a set designer.

How did you research for the play?

Rupert mentioned the Arctic on the phone. Then you instantly start looking at stuff to do with the Arctic! But I never go for the obvious. I would always look behind something. So I looked at Eskimos, yes, but I was more interested in Eskimos from very early photographs (1890s), seeing exactly how they would cut up furs to make clothes. In that way, you can update it so it's not just a period costume which would be dull and limiting for an actor on stage.

For other things, like the mariners' clothes, I researched old army things, again because the way they're cut is interesting.

Various things lead me on. I love 'working-clothes', you know, things that are made for working in. It's very interesting when you find for example, a Second World War overall. I can relate that back to the Eskimo clothes.

I work in an abstract form; that's how I get to the point where I can draw it. I looked at Francis Bacon's The Harpy. There was no one particular image but I have got a lot of books and old photographs from obscure periods of history, which I often work from.

Were there any ideas or emotional qualities you wanted to draw out in the clothes?

To me, The Tempest is all about these separate groups of people so I was keen to give them a separation. There's a quality of isolation about it all. We weren't particularly concentrating on that. It was more important to get the feeling of being very cold and a quality of being lost.

I like the way Prospero looks in the bear-skin and his costume at the end. I think it could probably go further. I just draw like a lunatic - thousands and thousands of drawings and it just begins to form itself from the drawings.

So you always draw as you're developing ideas?

Yes, just drawing. I draw and do a lot of research. I found this American army stuff from 1965 in Camden Market, and it was just right – there were parkas, cut in an interesting way. The ideas I found in them were fantastic; they reminded me of those strange-shaped clothes I'd seen in the photographs.

Before I draw, I go and buy stuff - clothing - for research. It's better to be doing it rather than sitting at a computer - I'm probably too old for that! I think it works quite well for a two-dimensional model but costumes aren't the same.

When do you show your designs to the rest of the team?

I never consider anything to be finished until the point at which we're handing it in [to the costume department]. It can take three or four weeks. You just have to keep thrashing it out on paper until it feels right.

It also depends on the availability of the director: how much time we have; what the input is. I can draw very quickly and I might be doing 10 or 15 drawings a day in order to get something ready for three days' time, so it does vary.

What's ideal is a gestation period. It's good to do a load of work, then let it settle for two or three weeks, and then come back to it.

In terms of the director's input, what's helpful and what's not helpful?

Ideally they have to be quite rigorous, and have a rough plan of how they're going to work. If it's not well thought through, and not communicated to me, then I don't have anything work with and can struggle to form it myself.

You get to a stage where it's like a mathematical equation: you know, A has to be here and B has to be there. How does the way I'm going to make them look relate to how they are on the set at that point? How does that then to relate to the character? I think I have to project the character out to the audience. I don't think my job is about putting my ego on the stage. It's about facilitating the actors' ability to be that person.

Director-wise, I prefer them to be rigorous and sorted-out in how they are going to go through all the scenes and what each scene requires, rather than being left to come up with a mass of stuff I'm not sure about.

What about collaborating with the Set Designer, Giles Cadle?

I always find colour is very important. Early on I always need to see what colours the set designer is going to use because then I can work out what will work with it from my point of view. So the set is a kind of a blue-white, so that's how I knew that the orange of the oil-skins would be a good colour to put on it; they would resonate; they would work against each other. Then you're dependent on the lighting designer, because if the lighting designer puts pink on it, then it doesn't work at all!

So you talk to the lighting designer as well?

I try to. I don't have a joyous relationship with lighting designers because they can trash everything, unless it's someone who's very sympathetic to the way you're working. The lighting designer's the last cog in the wheel, if you think about it. It's not about the ego of the lighting designer: it should be about the collaboration, bringing the whole thing together, putting the last cog in and it's marvellous.

What do you think about updating plays for a contemporary audience?

As long as you're thorough and you have a good reason for doing it, you can do anything. I work with Richard Jones a lot, and he would never place something in the period it was written in unless he felt it was totally relevant, and it would give some interest to the audience, or the audience would get something from it, maybe understand the play more.

I've been going round the stores here – where they keep old props – because our budget's so limited, and there are some extraordinary things from the past. I don't think people do period productions very well anymore. I think you have to be very inventive with it for sixteenth century to work. It would be great - I'd love to challenge myself to do it. For The Tempest, these costumes don't feel that they're particularly rooted anywhere at all. I know they're just modern suits and so on.

I think period can really hinder the performers if you're not careful, and switch the audience off. So I would always be careful - I would never do it just for the sake of it; it would have to have a relevance to the play. It's a more relevant question for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, where if you do update it too radically, you have to have a very good reason to shift it, and then be very clever about why and how you do that.

You might also like