Having lit many shows in her 15-year career, Prema Mehta took on the challenge of using solely candles at the wood-panelled theatre. She tells Kate Wyver how working in such a fragile medium heightens the onstage drama
Prema Mehta is not afraid of the dark. In the seventh scene of the lighting designer’s most recent production, Swive [Elizabeth] at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a young queen Elizabeth is thrown into the Tower of London. Each candle on the replica Jacobean stage is gradually snuffed out, the wicks letting off soft, menacing plumes of smoke, until the theatre is plunged into a thick pitch-black. Before the performance, the ushers warn that it’s a dark show; they mean it in both senses of the word.
“A naked flame can suggest so many different things,” Mehta ruminates backstage at Shakespeare’s Globe. “It can be delicate and powerful and oppressive and dangerous.”
The lack of a flame can also hold significant power, she adds. Having worked with candles for Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s Richard II in the same venue, Mehta was emboldened in her choices as ‘candle consultant’ for Swive, written by Ella Hickson. “I really wanted [the Tower scene] to be claustrophobic,” she says. “In a household setting, a candle is quite a romantic, comforting feeling, but in this space, candles evoke different emotions. Extinguishing light can feel frightening.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in corporate parenting in local government.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Lighting design for I Live in Tribeca at London’s White Bear theatre, directed by Michael Longhurst.
What’s your next job?
The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I’m influenced by a number of people in our industry. I’m full of respect for the women who have managed to negotiate having a family and being in this industry.
If you hadn’t been a lighting designer, what would you have been?
I rather boldly told friends last year that I would love to be head of culture for the Mayor of London. Step one is complete as Sadiq Khan follows me on Twitter.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. I’m really awful at writing cards [on opening night]. I never get round to doing them.
For the past 15 years, Mehta has worked as a lighting designer on a variety of regional and West End shows. In 2019 alone she worked on 11 productions, including Sabrina Mahfouz’s A History of Water in the Middle East at London’s Royal Court and Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios. The day before we meet, she is in Stratford-upon-Avon for the first day of rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Winter’s Tale, directed by Erica Whyman.
Mehta was drawn to theatre design from an early age. “I was always quite creative and arty, although my family didn’t have the opportunity to take me to the theatre. I think my first experience was going to see Blood Brothers at maybe 16 or 18. I didn’t quite know what was happening behind the scenes but I knew there was this massive machine that made this brilliant thing come alive.”
After studying stage management and technical theatre at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Mehta worked in other jobs to supplement her dream of being a lighting designer, including working in local government and for Saracens rugby club.
“I didn’t ever stop lighting,” she says. “I’d have a change of outfit in my car, ask to leave at 4pm and make up the hours, and go to a production meeting. My bosses knew about theatre, but I made a really conscious decision that theatre wouldn’t know about the other work. I wanted to protect any chance I had of building a reputation as a designer.”
The turning point came after eight years, when there was enough work that “I thought I could potentially make a living doing what I love”. Now in demand, she is able to choose carefully the projects she works on – such as Swive.
Lighting is crucial to Swive’s dramaturgy: Hickson wrote it specifically for the candlelit Wanamaker. The piece is underscored by a childhood memory of darkness, with the young Elizabeth not being tall enough to reach up and light the candles herself. Throughout, Hickson’s language is ringed in light: the Queen’s luminous God-given right to rule; the widespread myth of her black eyes void of light; women described as radiant and bright; light as safety; love described like a raging fire. The beeswax candles – at one point Elizabeth dips her finger into the hot wax – aren’t just accessories. They are active agents in the storytelling.
‘You spend so long learning conventional lighting design – then suddenly your tools are changed for candles’
Despite top training and years of experience, Mehta’s grasp of wax and wicks is still relatively new – her training was all in electric, artificial lighting. “I didn’t know about candles before working here,” she says. “The two weeks prior to our tech for Richard II, I didn’t sleep because I was filled with anxiety. You spend so many years learning the tools of lighting design in a conventional sense, and then suddenly your tools are changed for candles. Cleo [Maynard, candle technician at Shakespeare’s Globe] was absolutely brilliant at sharing her knowledge.”
In many ways Mehta’s innocence was an asset. “I didn’t know the rules so I was able to ask questions to break them.”
Mehta employs all six of the Wanamaker’s candelabras for Swive. They are slowly pulled up and down, spinning like an unwinding swing when snuffed out or relit. In one scene, the candelabras are lowered to head height as Elizabeth and Dudley walk among them. “That intimacy of looking at each other through the candles was for me quite striking,” Mehta says, “beautifully choreographed.” Six candle sconces also line the pillars of the theatre, these candles doused and reanimated by soft-footed, hooded stage managers.
Working with candles has provided a whole new set of challenges. “In conventional theatre, you can bump up levels of lights by 10% and change the fade times; it’s all quite controlled. But here…”
The candles force new considerations: airflow, breath, breeze, audience’s eyes adjusting. The Wanamaker’s ventilation system blows upwards rather than across to prevent flickers, but a show report the previous night details a small sudden breeze that affected the candelabras. It makes the act of creating theatre seem incredibly delicate. “The beauty and atmosphere that we create in this space is completely different from what we’re allowed to do in any other space.”
Safety considerations in the Wanamaker are different from other theatres too. All actors are told not to use particular hair products and costumes are designed with the likelihood of them catching fire in mind. “How realistic would it be to create this in a different venue?” Mehta wonders, before laughing. “I think you’d have to take someone out for a really large gin and tonic before suggesting it.”
In 2019, Mehta was nominated – alongside Andrew Scott and Ben and Max Ringham – for the h100 awards recognising the UK’s creative talent. “Lighting designers generally don’t get enough recognition for the contribution they bring to a show, so it was incredible to be nominated.” The nomination also celebrated Mehta’s work as founder of Stage Sight, a company that aims to create a theatrical industry more reflective of our society today, in terms of ethnicity, class and disability.
“I was aware that I was different in drama school,” Mehta says. “I didn’t get treated differently, but you only have to go to the loo and take a look in the mirror to realise you’re different from all your peers. Working in this industry is a real privilege but I didn’t come from a privileged background. I wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for everybody to be part of this brilliant industry.”
Though change in backstage areas of theatre is slow, Mehta says: “I do believe theatres are doing what they can. We’re going through a time of really limited resource which is difficult for everybody.” The theory behind Stage Sight is to share ideas that work and to spread them nationally: a theatrical hive mind working for a better future. There are currently 183 initiatives listed online.
Mehta explains: “Stage Sight wasn’t bred out of anger. It was bred out of this gratitude to the opportunities that I had. It’s sort of paying it forward.”
Swive [Elizabeth] runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until February 15
For further details about Stage Sight, visit stagesight.org
Training: BA (hons) in stage management and technical theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• Holes, Nottingham Playhouse (2018)
• A Passage to India, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and UK tour (2018)
• Richard II, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London (2019)
• The History of Water in the Middle East, Royal Court, London (2019)
• A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Trafalgar Studios, London (2019)
Agent: Dan Usztan, United Agents