Max Jones: ‘I didn’t realise theatre design was a career option’

The Mysteries at York Minster, designed by Max Jones. Photo: Anthony Chappel-Ross The Mysteries at York Minster, designed by Max Jones. Photo: Anthony Chappel-Ross
by -

Even for those at the top of their game, designing productions can be a precarious existence. Award-winning designer Max Jones tells Nick Smurthwaite how he copes with the pressures of the job…

The life of Christ, Jane Austen and Glaswegian drug addicts have all provided inspiration for the London-based designer Max Jones this year.

A former Linbury Prize winner, Jones has been forging a reputation for himself for the past 15 years with an impressive body of work, from Pinter’s The Caretaker at Glasgow Citizens to Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for Welsh National Opera.

Like too many creatives, Jones often has to take on more work than he can comfortably manage in order to make a decent living. “You’ve got to dig in if you want to make a success of it,” says the straight-talking Bristolian. “You need endurance and communication skills as well as artistic flair to make it work.”

He often works with the director Phillip Breen, whom he met while working at Theatr Clywd. Earlier this year, they joined forces on an elaborate £1 million production of The Mysteries at York Minster, which The Guardian’s critic praised for its “breathtaking visual coups”.

Designer Max Jones
Designer Max Jones

Jones says that he worked on The Mysteries almost exclusively for nearly 18 months because of the massive technical challenges and the 450 costumes that needed to be designed.

“We had to recruit hundreds of volunteer makers as well as the professionals in order to get it all done in time,” he says. “There was a cast of 180 local amateurs (Jesus was the only professional actor) taking part so the logistics of that alone were immense. The fit-up took three weeks. It was epic on every scale, like an arena show. The stage was about 7 metres high and we had to build 14-metre towers for the lights. It was also the first time I’d worked with a video designer, Douglas O’Connell, so we needed a 50-metre high gauze on which to project scenic moments, like the star of Bethlehem.”

The Guardian wrote: “Max Jones’ steeply rising, stepped design is framed by the Minster’s newly restored east window, which mirrors the drama’s intention of depicting the entire course of creation in terms a medieval layman could understand.”

Jones says: “It was a fantastic achievement against the odds. They had to keep the minster open throughout the process because it is a huge tourist attraction as well as a place of worship. Actually, I quite enjoyed the public ownership of it. Designing for non-theatrical venues is something that appeals to me more and more.”

You’ve got to dig in if you want to make a success of it – you need endurance and communication skills as well as artistic flair to make it work

Jones’ interest in the theatre was first fired at Colston’s School, Bristol, which boasted a first-rate theatre studies department. It had a properly equipped theatre where Jones and other theatre enthusiasts were able to put on shows over and above the requirements of the curriculum. “I guess I caught the bug,” he says. “At the time I didn’t even realise theatre design was a career option.”

Following an art foundation course in Bristol, he spent three years doing a degree course in theatre design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

After winning the Linbury Prize, he cut his teeth at the reputable Theatr Clwyd in North Wales, working with artistic director Terry Hands, among others. He says: “Clwyd wasn’t great for my profile because it’s so off the beaten track, but it was fantastic for my professional development. We did some brilliant stuff, and it kicked off my working partnership with Phil (Breen), which has been incredibly productive. It was just frustrating that not enough people saw it.”

Clearly Jones is a designer who relishes variety and new challenges. He and Breen worked together for Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo last year, directing and designing Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. “I barely saw Tokyo because I only had two weeks before rehearsals to design the show from scratch. It would have been even tougher if I’d been doing the costumes. Their work ethic is incredible. Backstage there are four times the number of people you’d expect to find in the UK, and backstage was always spotless. Getting things right and not letting your colleagues down is a matter of honour for the Japanese.”

One of his first collaborations with Breen was The Caretaker at Glasgow Citizens in 2008, and more recently they revived Sam Shepard’s True West there. The production later transferred to the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, where it was filmed by Digital Theatre. “Ironically we’d conceived it to look like a film, with a widescreen cinematic effect, and a fade-in, fade-out for the scene changes. We felt the filmic quality emphasised the intimacy of it. So the people from Digital Theatre didn’t have a lot to do. I don’t think they even changed the stage lighting because they can make a lot of those adjustments during the post-production period.”

It will be interesting to see if Digital Theatre picks up its next collaboration at Glasgow Citizens, Trainspotting, adapted from the play text, adding a couple of scenes from the film. Jones says: “The staging needs to allow for the anarchic feel of the narrative. It is quite disjointed, with multiple locations, 25 different scenes. We wanted it to retain the gritty feel of a studio production, rather than a kind of staged version of the film.”

Pride and Prejudice at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, designed by Max Jones
Pride and Prejudice at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, designed by Max Jones

For this reason, Jones says he has consciously avoided using any video design for Trainspotting. “I tend to use video design as a means to an end. Production budgets are getting smaller and smaller, so there are very few venues now that can support the use of video design. Working in regional venues, you can’t help noticing how funding problems affect morale. Part of your job becomes trying to energise the on-site team. One of the great things about the Citz is its apparent resilience. It seems to manage to energise itself.”

In recent weeks, Jones has been back at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, re-staging his and director Deborah Bruce’s 2013 production of Pride and Prejudice, which will tour the UK until next February after its two-week return to the park. It was his first experience of outdoor theatre and presented a number of challenges.

“I knew early on I wanted my design to have a strong sculptural integrity which tuned into its environment. On my first trip to Regent’s Park my eye was caught by the decorative iron railings that form the perimeter of the park. This was my starting point for the design. I wanted the stage to look as if the park’s fences had wound their way into the theatre, like a ribbon through the trees, and become the backdrop to the show, celebrating the park and at the same time referencing the period context of the play. Its simplicity betrays a huge amount of technical work.”

While Jones had reservations about taking Pride and Prejudice on the road, he and Bruce found a way of making it adaptable to multiple venues, while retaining the integrity of his design.

Theatre begins to feel like an addiction. You have to choose whether you’re going to ride the anxiety or cut loose

In addition to Trainspotting, which opens on September 14, Jones is working on a major new Richard Bean play, The Hypocrite, a co-production between Hull Truck and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which will be a centrepiece of next year’s Hull City of Culture Festival, before transferring to the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is a comedy set at the time of the English Civil War.

Being increasingly sought after as a designer, does he feel there is enough work to go round, given the large numbers of youngsters now training to become scenic designers?

“That’s not a problem I’ve encountered,” Jones says. “The biggest problem in our industry is money and whether or not you are able to make a living from design. I used to work a seven-day week. I can’t do that any more because I have a partner and a two-year-old daughter to consider. The anxiety around all that is enormous. Theatre begins to feel like an addiction. You have to choose whether you’re going to ride that anxiety or cut loose. Of my cohort of 18 at the Royal Welsh, only three of us are still designing. People drop out, become makers, or switch careers. If you want to make a success of it, you need serious endurance and commitment.”

Pride and Prejudice runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from September 2 to 17, then tours until next February. Further details: openairtheatre.com, maxjones.co.uk