Maxine Peake in rehearsals for Hamlet
Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a very special place for Amanda Stoodley. She describes herself as an ‘Exchange baby’ who ‘cut her teeth’ at the Exchange. The glass walled module set in the heart of the old cotton exchange, at one time the largest trading hall in Britain, designed by Richard Negri, is an incongruous and unique space often likened to a spaceship. The theatre comprises a seven sided, glass walled structure suspended from four columns which support the building’s central dome, and can seat 700 audience members over three levels, making it the largest pure theatre in-the-round in Britain.
Opened in 1976, despite some initial scepticism from Mancunians and the theatre community, the space has proved popular with audiences and has provided Manchester with a world class theatre space. Despite the obvious challenges of the space: no wings, flats or backdrops, the audience on all sides and above, Stoodley, never one to be phased by unusual and awkward venues, describes her experience of working on the current production of Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake, and Two, back in January 2012, with undisguised passion and enthusiasm. Indeed, the designer has only worked on one proscenium arch production since leaving college, favouring instead the likes of Bolton Octagon, the Royal Exchange Studio, the Albert Hall as well as faceless office spaces, like the fifth floor of Number One First Street, Manchester.
Stoodley’s introduction to the Exchange came when she was working as an assistant to Liz Ascroft on a number of productions, two of which were directed by Sarah Frankcom. She describes working with Ascroft and watching the way she approached the space as an ‘amazing experience’ from which she learnt a lot, enabling her to tackle the, at times tricky, Exchange main space herself. Stoodley often uses the space she is designing for as the starting point for her designs, and this is also the case for Hamlet. She spent time sitting in different seats, absorbing the feel and sense of place, before beginning. Stoodley likes to work closely with the director, supporting the story and its telling.
She describes the initial ideas behind Sarah Frankcom’s production: ” I think that Sarah and Maxine had been talking about this for a long time before I arrived into the process, and they were very keen that it was stripped back and very exposing of the story, and the actors, and the acting, and the theatre itself.” This collaboration with Frankcom, and Stoodley’s own organic methods, have materialised in physical form in many ways in her design. One of these is the presence of the Exchange’s actual theatre floor. Normally it’s covered, she explains, but she had a fabulous experience with one of the scenic painters who had been at the Exchange for many years and who was able to point out the various paint splashes and identify them as ‘a bit of The Tempest‘ and countless other past productions.
There’s an honesty at the heart of this production which is eye-opening. ‘I suppose when it’s stripped back like that, you haven’t got anything literal, you are really accentuating the artificiality of everything. It’s about how theatre can make you feel, and tell your story, and we’re making no bones about it.’ The idea, she tells me, ‘is that we start off with a layer, a veneer that’s been laid over reality and covers the truth – which gets peeled away as Hamlet discovers more and takes the decision to act.’
It seems to me what she is describing is a wonderful visual metaphor for the essence of Hamlet, a painful process of understanding, conflict, and the exposure of wounds below a seemingly acceptable exterior. Stoodley’s use of shape in this design also works to support the sense of artificiality that the production aims to highlight. The shapes have been informed by the theatre itself, Stoodley explains, and they are quite simple and geometric. For instance, to her it felt like Hamlet was symbolised by a circle, and all its connotations, whereas the King(dom) is more angular – a rectangle or square – imposed upon the space. The shape of the theatre and the reality of the space reinforces Hamlet, whereas the King’s shape and presence is unnatural and jarring.
The costume design was also a collaborative and natural process in which Stoodley chatted with actors and listened to their ideas. She believes each person brings something of themselves to the character and that you have to really look at the person you are designing for, and ensure that they feel ‘right’. Again she stresses, as a designer you are trying to help, trying to aid and support the delivery of the story to the audience. The monochrome world into which Hamlet enters is appropriate, not only because of the state of mourning, but also because of the King’s ‘state’ and rule. As Stoodley describes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and The Players ‘crashing in’ with colour and pattern and contrasting details and styles from the world outside it is not hard to think go political overtures, both past and present. I ask her about this and she agrees that the atmosphere of the play at the beginning is repressive under the King’s ‘dictatorship’, however the creative team steered clear of overt political connotations, emphasising that Hamlet is about humanity, family, love, trust, morality, betrayal, belief and honour and not the result of a set of specific political circumstances.
Despite this, our conversation turns irresistibly to the topic of Scottish Independence, with Stoodley pointing out the referendum is only two nights after the press night for the production. After all, nothing is created in a vacuum, and one of the central quotes from her workbook on Hamlet is about the tragedy of moral inertia: ‘it is only necessary for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph’, from a review from the 1998 film Festen by Thomas Vinterberg.
Stoodley is wildly imaginative but also self-deprecating, peppering our conversation with ‘if it works’ and ‘I hope sos’. The depth at which she designs however is quite remarkable, bringing a meticulous, detailed approach to her work, whether it be creating a ‘ridiculous’ props list for a lost property office of souls (you can imagine the length of that particular document), or designing a pub carpet for Two from scratch, including scenes, characters and segments from the play. We are encouraged to look closer, think a little bit harder and as a result we gain a little bit more. More understanding, more depth – new ways of seeing.
More Exeunt interviews on theatre design:
Dan Hutton in conversation with Es Devlin
Catherine Love in conversation with Tom Scutt.
Dan Hutton in conversation with Chloe Lamford.
Hamlet is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, from 11th September – 25th October 2014