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Set design: Gatti Routh Rhodes imagines the world of Martin Crimp

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Emerging practice Gatti Routh Rhodes has designed sets for four Martin Crimp plays – known for their surreal tone and lack of information on setting. Jon Astbury spoke to the architects about how they approached the challenge

Set design and architecture often make for a fruitful combination: but what happens when the playwright gives not even the slightest hint of where a performance is set, or what appears in the space?

British playwright Martin Crimp is known for his surreal tone, bleak atmosphere, severe dialogue and a concern for theatrical form rather than any narrative. His plays question the idea of what a play is: how it is written, constructed and brought to life. As such, they give an immense freedom to designers and performers, sometimes opening simply with ‘Place – Blank’, other times not even specifying which lines belong to which performer.

Emerging architecture practice Gatti Routh Rhodes recently worked with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to develop the sets for the school’s final year performances of four plays by Martin Crimp: the Fewer Emergencies trilogy (Whole Blue Sky, Face to the Wall and Fewer Emergencies) and Play House. So how did the practice approach this particularly thought-provoking collaboration?

Overview 01

Overview 01

What is the relationship between architecture and set design? 

In some ways, they are very alike. Both are about conceiving and realising spaces, of scales that range from interiors to (occasionally) whole cities. The tools we use for them are similar too: sketching, model-making, precedent, eventually CAD. And we work with light, scale, texture, spatial readings and atmosphere. But in other ways they are quite different; you are designing to enhance individual moments, not to last a lifetime. It is, in a way, inward-looking and experiential, immersing the audience in a completely controlled environment. Architecture often has to deal with the opposite, has to be resilient to and enhance the uncontrollable chaos of urban life. 

Set design has to be intensely collaborative, working closely with the director, lighting, sound and costume designers to name just a few, as well as the technicians and actors; and all at a furious pace. Architecture can be very collaborative, but more often than not it falls foul of ingrained disciplinary boundaries and contractual antagonism.

How did you develop the initial concept for the set?

Slowly, and with great difficulty. Part of our challenge was that we were actually designing a set for four plays (three of which form a trilogy, and a fourth which is distinct) and we knew we wouldn’t have an interval to change the set around. We met often as a design team (the director, Chris Kelham, composer Kerry Yong and Cecilia Carey, who was a co-designer), read through the script multiple times, and explored ideas until eventually things started to emerge. 

Rather famously, Crimp often gives no direction for what to use in terms of a set. What was your starting point?

Each of the Fewer Emergencies plays start with the words: Time: Blank  Place: Blank

We started from a perspective that this wasn’t a negation, but that the plays were set in a non-place, somehow outside of time. Then we had to work out what that meant in terms of conveying this idea of otherness to the audience.

In the programme note, you refer to a physical ‘Crimpland’ as being something of a concrete dystopia. Why this association?

One of the early references we talked about was Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, where Tim Roth plays a nihilist skinhead against a backdrop of run-down 1980s council estates. Another early reference was Kengo Tange’s Kurashiki Town Hall, which has this fabulous concrete staircase – so we wanted to do something that expressed both the beauty and negative associations of concrete.

In this sense, concrete is a bit of a chameleon – it is one of the most common materials within our anthropocentric environment and can be whatever we want it to be, both metaphorically and physically. 

Everything being covered in grey fabric seems to play with this slightly surreal idea of concrete. What consideration was there here of materiality?

The idea of creating a surreal space plays into a notion of ‘no-place’ and also the sort of thing you can do with a set that would be hard to achieve in the real world. We wanted to wrap everything – including the backdrop to the seating – to give the audience the sense they were in some way inside the play, and the subject of the play. The soft walls also reference an idea of padded cells, and in some sense, all of the action takes place inside Martin Crimp’s head – inside a self-referencing, enclosed world where the dialogues are surreal and slightly nightmarish.

How did rehearsals and the actors ‘use’ of initial designs play a part in shaping what was created?

The set was largely designed before the actors got involved, which was a shame, as we would have liked to work with them to develop our ideas in parallel with theirs. But we recreated the set in the rehearsal space so that actors could respond to the set and the props – and tweaked things where we could in response to their provocation.

The first three plays are distinct but also flow into one another and act as a loose trilogy with recurring themes and characters. How did the set design deal with this?

The first three plays are quite short – about 15 minutes each. The characters in each of the plays don’t have names – only numbers – and merge into each other, and into the characters in the story they are telling. We tried to use a small number of elements – a table, a few chairs, some helium balloons – and some very strong lighting to create ‘same but different’ backdrops for each of the sets.

What are your thoughts on other architects who have designed sets for large productions?

I think there is something different about these very large-scale productions for say the Metropolitan Opera, where the architect’s involvement and name are part of the branding, part of the sell. We’re a long way from that! Having architects working in theatre seems to be more common in Europe – and not just the big names – but this more collaborative approach to be involved in the making of theatre rather than ‘just set design’ is something we’re interested in pursuing.

Did you research previous sets that have been designed for Crimp performances? 

As architects, we are quite keen on looking at references, and explore other people’s work to inform our own. Here though, we tried to avoid looking at previous sets. We wanted to come up with our own approach, rather than copy (or react against) what had been done previously. In a way we used the different background of the designers involved as references – we all come from different disciplines, so brought a whole lot of different views and approaches to the table. 

There are some moments where the set becomes more ‘interactive’ – almost prop-like rather than a backdrop or spatial element, such as the red balloons that are loaded with potential. How were these elements developed? 

The distinction between prop and set seems a little false to us – every object in the set is somehow moved or transformed in the course of the production. The decision to stage the play in traverse, and to bring the audience in further (so that the actors could sing from behind the audience, and the audience felt enclosed by the set) was as much part of the set as the furniture and the lighting. The balloons came about as an attempt to convey childhood innocence – an early version of the design called for swings. Balloons offered much more in terms of acoustic possibilities, and a balloon full of red dust enabled us to create the ‘aerosol of blood’ in Face to the Wall. Once we’d brought balloons into the rehearsal room, the actors took ownership of them, and developed them in surprising ways – as a baby crying, as a plum, as a glass of red wine. 

Detail 01

Detail 01

The furniture in Play House certainly seemed to be as colourful as possible. Was this a case of using what was available or was the setting more curated?

Unlike the trilogy, Play House is set in an ordinary flat (we’d pictured Finsbury Park) so we had the characters bring on the elements of the set as if they were moving in. We wanted to counteract the grey of the Fewer Emergencies trilogy, so each item, and all of the costume, was a single flat colour. We used the colour palette from [16th-century painter] Lucas Cranach’s The Garden of Eden to give us an earthy but vibrant feel. The lighting was much warmer and more naturalistic too – the idea was that this was a heightened normality after the surreal grey world we’d just come from.

If this is taken as one architectural manifestation of Crimpland – a concrete boardroom dystopia – did any other architectural examples spring to mind while reading the scripts? A surreal pseudoclassical Poundbury, perhaps? 

Poundbury is a nice idea, but not one that occurred to us. Having started from the idea of ‘no-place’ and the Guildhall’s initial statement that this was to be a ‘no-build’ production we moved quite quickly into the world of abstraction.

We looked at things like Adolph Appia’s  monolithic sets, and their architectural equivalents: Terragni’s memorial to Roberto Sarfatti, Indian Stepwells, the Mitterrand library in Paris. We were keen for the set and the seating to merge in some way. We feel that Crimp makes the audience the subject of his plays, and we wanted to express that in the design.

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