“You’ve got to deliver a forest: that’s what it boils down to.” Designer Lizzie Clachan is taking time out from a meeting with director Polly Findlay, planning their production of As You Like It. But she’s chafing slightly at the restraints of big-stage Shakespeare, and all the expectations it comes with. She explains that “We came up with a few plans, then at the last moment we thought it was too dull, and went for a much more experimental idea which will either work brilliantly or will be a complete and utter car crash.”
We’re tucked away in one of the quiet, vaguely institutional corners that the National Theatre is so good at – dense-carpeted pockets where you can sit and talk for hours. Clachan has worked at the National Theatre for decades, now, and is thoroughly acquainted with all its idiosyncrasies, as well as its nooks and crannies. Her design for The Beaux Stratagem, was integral to the Restoration comedy’s success, overcoming what she describes as “the challenge of doing comedy in the Olivier. The problem with the space is that the entrance and exits are miles away, so you have this terrible moment where you watch a character slowly make their way to the centre of the stage.” Clachan’s answer was a 17th century inn in cross-section, plonked on stage, cramped and creaking “so the farce could really come through, people could open a door and be on stage, can be upstairs without it taking ages: you can play it really quickly so the comedy can really sing.”
This imaginative leap was doubled, or more, at The Skriker, at Manchester International Festival, an astonishing, spirited piece of design that unfolded surprise after surprise to echo the constantly shifting state of Caryl Churchill’s text. Where other productions in the space have been limited by the in-the-round layout and small central playing area, Clachan tore up the seats to introduce long metal tables, a kind of catwalk for faeries to strut down, or banquet upon. Clachan explains that she was encouraged to “use the Royal Exchange space in a way it doesn’t usually get used. And to be fair to all the other designers who usually work in that space, I was allowed to disrupt it, to do things people aren’t usually able to do, because it was the festival – so it was an incredible opportunity.”
The source text is dense and difficult, a tapestry of nursery rhymes and folklore and regurgitated junk laid onto the story of two ordinary girls, sucked unwillingly into its texture by the charismatic Skriker. Clachan found it “incredibly difficult to understand what Caryl was writing. We met her, asked her opinion about what this meant and that meant. I’ve never done that so much but the play is a wall, almost, and it needed a solution that was magical and disorienting and surprising.”
“Caryl’s writing suggests that’s possible, because when you start to dissect it, it doesn’t get smaller, it gets more and more and more, so we had to find platforms for all this multiplicity. As a designer I’m always working creatively with the text and finding all these interesting things but also there’s this world of technicality about how you will actually put your ideas into practice.”
Her early inspiration was the contrast between the grounded world of the teenage girls, and the wilder abstracted faerie logic that overlays it. “It’s the really broad strokes of the energy of the piece that I respond to early on as a designer. When I think of the play I can see in my head a perimeter, then something conceptual which I move out from – it’s almost like a parallel world, the faerie world, and it’s completely mad.”
The perimeter-outlined reality happens up on the stage. This conceptual level appears in more surprising places – in waterfalls that run down the walls of the theatre, in fountains, in hidden cubbyholes or vitrines that light up, suddenly, to reveal dolls house scenes of a sunflower field, or Christmas, uncanny and still.
“We wanted to create these portals into human worlds that were sort of the end of something. Because of the circular balcony at the Royal Exchange, with people sitting above these spaces, I knew I couldn’t put any action in them, so they’re similar but all the same, communicating an idea which sits in its own timescale.”
It’s an approach which made me think of Rachael Whiteread – and of Clachan’s fine art background, which she explored in her early career as part of the Shunt Collective, making work in warehouses and dank tucked-away tunnels in London Bridge.
She finds that “I am interested in installation, but also journeys, passageways, labyrinths, all that really inspires me. My background is as a fine artist, so I’m interested as the stage as a place for images.”
“When we started Shunt a long, long time ago, it was because I really didn’t like theatre. But I enjoyed the liveness, the sense of a moment between an audience, the sense of an event. That was my ‘in’ to theatre: I didn’t come in with an interest in plays, I started with the idea of an experience, a moment, a vision. That’s what Shunt was really about: we deliberately didn’t call ourselves a theatre company, as our manifesto was to explore the live event, not text.
I suggest the impact of Shunt since might include, as well as a flourishing culture of site-specific performance, a degree of disintegrating boundaries between theatre and live art, but Clachan isn’t so sure. “None of these things are really in the mainstream. When I started at art college there was no way art and theatre went anywhere near each other. I didn’t go to the theatre for the whole four years of my degree and I still think it really is a bit like that. There’s not much of a crossover: more of a one-way flow [from the art world to theatre], more of a cautious interest in each other.”
“Shunt was more of a group of people who didn’t like theatre but saw there was an effect of liveness we exploited, and when I see all the stuff that’s coming out of that I think it’s great.” She explains that “when I go to the cinema there’s a massive big screen, and it’s dark, and I have a bag of Revels, and I want to be on my own with my bag of Revels. But when I’m in theatre I struggle with sitting in an auditorium where I can’t consciously immerse myself in the world in the same way: it’s sort of dark but not really, and I have to work to suspend my sense of disbelief. So in Shunt it was about creating a different place, more like a bar where stuff happened, rather than seeing a thing, then going to the bar afterwards. We got a huge audience who just didn’t go to the theatre, but we didn’t think of ourselves as a theatre trying to hide what we were doing.”
There’s an irony in the fact that artists and theatremakers have been increasingly excited about making work in non-traditional venues just as these venues are attracting the attention of other, deeper-pocketed impresarios. Shunt Lounge’s venue in tunnels near London Bridge fell foul of station improvement works in 2010: “property prices are so expensive that it’s getting very hard to do what we did. We were very lucky to find old arches we could rent for a period of time reasonably cheaply but it was already hard to do it when we were doing it. The idea of a bunch of artists being able to find a space and make work is disappearing: it’s about a sense of process, it’s all about collaboration and not necessarily making money. But there’s this idea now that all work is about making money. Artists will be forced to move out of cities and it’s a terrible shame.”
Somewhere where Clachan feels that process, and freedom to make work, is still alive is in Germany, where she’s worked with director Katie Mitchell on a series of high-profile plays. “Berlin seems like a place of artists, where collaboration counts for something, where process counts for something, where you can have a studio…it’s a kind of fantasy as well but the other reality is if you go and work in Germany you get paid properly. And also their arts and theatre scene is hugely more vibrant and exciting, generally, in the mainstream, than ours is. You have to go to the more extreme corners to find the more interesting work in this country, compared to Berlin.”
As Andrew Haydon’s Exeunt dialogue with Mitchell suggests, there’s a seriousness, a rigorousness to German theatre that’s reflected in her approach to directing. Clachan finds that “She’s very exacting, because she interrogates the work she does in a very particular way, and she expects the same of you as a designer. Before I worked with her I’m not sure I had interrogated what I was delivering in terms of naturalism, on a conceptual level – it was quite terrifying, actually!” But she also adds that “although she’s very clear and decisive, she’s also incredibly relaxed: she’ll give you the facts of what she needs but she’s not over your shoulder examining what you’re doing so it’s both extremes at once, which makes it very liberating, very freeing in a way.”
On her first collaboration with Mitchell, on Simon Stephens’ Wastwater at the National Theatre (2011), she explains that “we pulled off these three super-quick scene changes of high naturalism. The artistic director said ‘I don’t want any of this sitting around waiting’ and I took that as a provocation. We used all the tricks of theatre: flying, trucking, pushing, pulling, everyone working together really smoothly. And you can pull off total magic – I do love that about the theatre.”
But there’s also room for collaboration with trained magicians, both on her grimy, but enchanting design for Treasure Island (2013) at the National Theatre, and on Skriker. “I think the role of the illusionist is coming into the theatre. I’ve been working with a magician called Richard Pinner, and along with Katie the costume designer he did pull off the most extraordinary thing I ever saw at the Lyric’s brilliant Cinderella (designed by Tom Scutt) she just did that [*making my arms go weechew* she adds, for my dictaphone’s benefit] and her costume completely changed. I was agog as a designer, trying to work out how, why, what they were doing.”
Clachan has more tricks up her sleeves, ready to design Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith. It’s fitting, since “We met up with Sarah Waters and she was clear that it’s not a naturalistic world at all. She’s writing a kind of Victorian London that doesn’t exist – or at least isn’t documented – so she’s made it up. It’s a wishful thinking, an alternative history in amongst the real history of the time, so our production is completely non-naturalistic with an appreciation of the world of music hall. There are backcloths and Laura Wade’s adaptation has so many scene changes – it’s essentially one big music hall production where the scenes are like turns.”
And there are witty touches, too: “we disrupt it in some ways, just to keep a modernity about it, it’s very ambiguous setting, kind of the 1890s but then we do modern classic pop songs in 1890s style, so it’s completely irreverent. It’s a massive show being shoehorned into a tiny amount of time so we’ll be down to the wire!”
Naively, I assume these backcloths will be painted by a scenic artist — like those you can peer in on at the National Theatre, working on great stretched canvases. But Clachan explains that “compromises get made: nowadays you’d really have to argue your case as a designer that you want your background properly painted, not digitally printed. There’s a serious point there: theatre doesn’t make much money and you’ve got to find cheaper way of doing everything, the profits are so low.”
“The economics don’t work. In Shunt we used to use lots of people who’d work for free, and give them lunch, but often young designers ask my advice and I think ‘God, it seems really hard because the economics don’t work.’ I didn’t intend to be a designer, I was making work with my own company, but it’s really difficult for young designers to afford to do anything. When I graduated I went on the dole, and did a little work cash in hand to get me by, and tried desperately hard to be a designer. I didn’t feel I was cheating anyone – I was working really hard, all the time. But the only thing that was saving me was the dole and housing benefit, and now, you haven’t even got that. You have to have rich parents to survive and do things like internships, and if people come and work for me someone has to support them. I was comprehensive-educated, and if I was coming through now I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. It makes me angry, actually.”
“On a show to show basis there’s not enough time, not enough money, and you just have to pull it out the bag. But the trouble is, there comes a point where you can’t continually do that, as a designer you can do that for a bit but I have an 8 year old and I have to earn money. It’s not even just feeding myself, it’s about feeding my child. There’s always the love, but there’s also having to balance that with the work you do.”
It’s an unconventional journey, from Shunt to multiple National Theatre productions in a year, traversing huge broad stages and smashing them up into smaller worlds. There’s not the same dankness, liveness, and space for anger that Shunt brought, but Clachan’s large-scale designs still have plenty of space to work an intimate magic.