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The Archive: Jocelyn Herbert – design’s quiet revolutionary

Jocelyn Herbert. Photo: Robert Mayne Jocelyn Herbert. Photo: Robert Mayne
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If the Royal Court staged a revolution in British theatre in the 1950s, Jocelyn Herbert was a frontline activist, manning the barricades and spreading the gospel according to George Devine.

Herbert, who trained in fine art and set design, joined the Royal Court as a props maker in 1956, the year John Osborne’s incendiary play Look Back in Anger put the Sloane Square venue on the map.

The canny Devine quickly realised that she was an exceptional talent and invited Herbert to recreate the Berliner Ensemble’s original design for Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan, with Peggy Ashcroft playing the demanding title role.

Already a huge admirer of Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble – she had seen them at work on their home turf as a student – Herbert saw her task as an honour rather than a chore, as some more experienced designers might have done, and even managed to persuade a highly sceptical Ashcroft to wear a half-mask in the Brechtian tradition.

The design aesthetic of the Royal Court, as laid down by Devine and Motley – the legendary design triumvirate consisting of Sophie and Percy Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery – was, in a nutshell, to serve the text and clear the stage of all extraneous clutter. This minimalist approach came in turn from Edward Gordon Craig’s book, The Art of the Theatre, in which he promoted the radical idea that design-wise, distillation was always preferable to elaboration.

Jocelyn Herbert. Photo: Sandra Lousada
Jocelyn Herbert. Photo: Sandra Lousada

Jocelyn Herbert regarded the evolving Court ethos of less is more as “an attitude to life, as well as to the theatre”. In the modest cottage she shared with Devine, until his premature death aged 56 in 1966, the emphasis was on natural light and uncluttered simplicity.

“Some directors could be alarmed by Herbert’s quiet determination to remove anything inessential from a design,” wrote the director and theatre historian Alan Strachan on her death in 2003, adding that her reputation as “a puritan minimalist” was belied by her versatility. Like all stage designers, she liked to ring the changes. She was just as happy to design a pre-Raphaelite Pygmalion as she was to create the bleak terrace with its crumbling balustrade for David Storey’s Home.

She also had a Zelig-like tendency to be there at the epoch-making moments in British theatre history, firstly at the Royal Court and subsequently at the National Theatre, where she was on the original South Bank building committee in the late 1960s. Later, in the early 1970s, Laurence Olivier invited her to formulate a design strategy for the NT with a view to curbing what he considered were excessive design budgets, pushing up the deficit.

The journalist and critic Jim Hiley, who wrote about the National in his book Theatre at Work, said Herbert’s “Oxford Englishness and remote manner veiled a passionate commitment”.

Richard Eyre, who worked with Herbert during his stewardship of the National, remembers “her quiet, determined voice, her modesty, her frequent amusement at the stubbornness of those she most admired, and her face, which had the beauty of a gothic saint.”

Herbert grew up in the company of writers, actors and artists. Her father was the prolific writer and humourist AP Herbert, whose career covered all aspects of literary endeavour, from poetry to musical comedy. Her original ambition was to be a fine artist, but unsurprisingly she gravitated towards the theatre and attended the London Theatre Studio, set up in the 1930s by the influential French director Michel Saint-Denis, with the help of Motley, the ground breaking design trio.

Towards the end of the 1930s, she married the lawyer and art collector Anthony Lousada, and raised four children. One of her daughters, Sandra Lousada, went on to become a distinguished portrait photographer.

So when she resumed her career at the Royal Court in the mid-1950s, Herbert was in her 40th year and, one would imagine, far from confident of her ability to make her mark among the groundbreaking young turks of Sloane Square. But, as designer Timothy O’Brien points out, a combination of determination, talent and self-deprecation won her the respect of her peers.

Jocelyn Herbert
Jocelyn Herbert

“She never turned aside from what she wanted to do to accept shows that might have made her rich,” wrote O’Brien. “She was resistant to awards and honours. Diffident technically, she nonetheless doggedly pursued the detail of the execution of her scenery and costumes. She got what she needed.”

Her appetite for collaboration spawned many enduring friendships with some of the towering figures of 20th-century theatre, including Samuel Beckett, Tony Richardson, John Dexter, John Osborne, Peter Hall, Lindsay Anderson, David Storey and Tony Harrison. After Devine died, she worked with only a handful of directors, among them Bill Gaskill, Anthony Page, John Dexter and Lindsay Anderson.

Herbert was one of the first British stage designers to seize upon and develop the use of projections in the theatre. Her use of back projection in Gaskill’s production of Baal (1963), and in Osborne’s A Patriot For Me (1965) was ground breaking, and most notably in Brecht’s Galileo (1980), when the cavernous Olivier auditorium finally came into its own.

Herbert’s attitude to design was best summed up by her as follows: “For me, there seems no right way to design a play, only perhaps a right approach – one of respecting the text, past or present, and not using it as a peg to advertise your skills, whatever they may be, nor to work out your psychological hang-ups with some fashionable gimmick.”

An archive of Jocelyn Herbert’s work lives in the National Theatre collections. Actor Sian Thomas will be giving the Jocelyn Herbert Lecture, Lions and Nightingales, at the NT’s Dorfman on December 11, where she will discuss her friendship with Herbert and working with her on the play The Kaisers of Carnuntum in Vienna in 1995.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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