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Designer Miriam Buether: ‘The most successful designs are those that don’t look like sets’

Miriam Buether in Wild at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The award-winning designer Miriam Buether is taking audiences into the heart of The Jungle at London’s Playhouse Theatre after last year’s sell-out run at the Young Vic. She tells Matt Trueman why integrity is fundamental to her concepts

The Playhouse Theatre is currently unrecognisable. Behind the white marble foyer-bar of this West End playhouse, instead of plush velvet stalls and a proscenium stage, there’s a makeshift space. Its walls have been pieced together out of plywood. Squares of thin fabric and plastic tarpaulin fill in the gaps, cheap flags flapping around by way of decoration. Mud cakes underfoot.

Welcome to The Jungle [1], Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy’s theatrical evocation of the migrant camp outside Calais – one of the most vital political plays of the decade. Its script teems with life: stories of refugees, volunteers, children and traffickers pull in different directions to convey the contradictions of a settlement that’s hardly fit for habitation, yet full of humanity.

But The Jungle [2] wouldn’t work without Miriam Buether’s design: an extrapolation of the camp’s on-site Afghan Flag restaurant. Developed alongside the script, the two evolving in tandem, her semi-immersive space takes us into the heart of the camp. Theatre can do that. It can take us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go – a teleportation device or an empathy machine. “Usually you see stories about refugees in the news, and they’re quite far removed,” the German-born designer starts to explain. “Obviously, it’s terrible, but it felt important for audiences to be in it with them – not to lean back and watch this play from outside.”

Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner

As such, authenticity became all-important. Buether studied “hundreds of photos, videos and 360-degree views” of the Calais migrant camp and, unusually, passed her research on to her build team as well. “We never wanted it to look like a set,” she insists. No element could be too well made; nothing too deliberate or obviously designed. Her carpenters combined new and reclaimed wood, found fabrics and fresh material to make everything seem as makeshift as the Jungle itself. Anything too polished was sent back.

“People built all these places – cafes and restaurants, churches and mosques – with whatever they’d found,” says Buether, “But, at the same time, they were quite homely and welcoming; warm places within all this misery. The design was about finding that balance.”

But Buether’s design is balanced in another way too. For all it recreates a real place elsewhere, it’s full of theatrical tells that root it in the here and now: exposed stage lights, TV monitors, an audience looking on from the circle. It never pretends to be anything but theatre – at once immersive and not. It’s that choice which stops The Jungle sliding into poverty tourism; the migrant experience, a taste of Calais. “I know it sounds funny,” she admits, “but I tried to create a theatrical space that’s very honest.”


Q&A: Miriam Buether

What was your first non-theatre job?
Pizza delivery.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Didi Feldman dance piece, Sadler’s Wells.

What’s your next job?
To Kill a Mocking Bird, in New York. I haven’t really been involved in the controversy [Harper Lee’s estate sued Aaron Sorkin over his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the Broadway adaptation, but the dispute was settled amicably last month]. I got the go-ahead, and I was put on hold, then I got the go-ahead again. It’s a wonderful script by Aaron Sorkin.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Try to stay true to yourself.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
The Wooster Group, Christoph Marthaler, Frank Castorf, Punchdrunk and Shunt.

If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
A musician. I love working in opera.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really.

The Jungle’s design is typical of an artist who trades in transformation. Buether’s sets tend to disrupt the architecture of theatre and, alongside Lizzie Clachan, who began her career designing for Shunt, she’s been behind a big shift in the way British theatre sees and uses space. Where once designers were confined to the stage, creating sets on which plays could sit, nowadays their work frequently spills into the seating and across the auditoria itself.

Buether has never been one to accept an auditorium as she finds it. In the mid-noughties, just as Punchdrunk and Shunt were hitting their stride, she brought some of their site-specific tactics back into theatre buildings. Since 2007, when she turned the Royal Court Downstairs into a tube carriage traverse for Mike Bartlett’s My Child, she’s overhauled one theatre after another: flooding the Young Vic (In The Red and Brown Water [3]), snaking a catwalk through the Dorfman (Earthquakes in London [4]), winding a travalator around the Almeida (Boy [5]).

She puts the impulse down to a “drive to explore spaces, not to be afraid of spaces”. For Buether, an auditorium isn’t a fixed arrangement, but an opportunity: “I try not to see it as a theatre, with curtains and carpets, but as a shell. I’ll look at each shell and see what I can create within it. I want people to come to a theatre they know well and not recognise it.”

Such designs do more than simply surprise. They alter the way audiences watch, disrupting the conventional arrangement between stage and stalls. It activates audiences, keeps us on our toes and so, Buether believes, stops us from sitting back and settling in: “I quite like it if audiences are alert,” she says, “If they’re taken out of their comfort zone.”

Born in Weimar in 1979, the daughter of two architects, Buether grew up in East Berlin. Her family moved west three years before the Berlin wall came down. “My mother decided that she wanted us all to study what we wanted, and to travel. When we left, we didn’t know the wall would ever come down, so it was a very brave step. If we’d stayed, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”

She sought, initially, to avoid architecture, starting a career in sculptural and installation art, but finding it too lonely. Instead, she turned to theatre, moving to London to study set design at Central St Martins. From the start, she displayed a distinctive aesthetic – German theatre having given her a grounding in the idea that stages needn’t stick to the script; sculpture giving her a sense that shape and space can have impact. On graduating, aged 30, she won the Linbury Prize in 1999 – “a great springboard”, she says, for emerging designers.

Anthony Welsh and Daniel Kaluuya in Sucker Punch at London’s Royal Court in 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Anthony Welsh and Daniel Kaluuya in Sucker Punch at London’s Royal Court in 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Buether’s early work often embraced colour and cacophony. Her carpet-lined box set for Anthony Neilson’s mental health fantasia The Wonderful World of Dissocia sent your eyes swimming in a sea of swirls, while her long-term collaboration with director Richard Jones has shot gaudy neons – livid oranges, electric greens, zinging pinks – through sober classics by Gogol and Ibsen. Her spaces aimed at sensory overload, even seasickness.

Over the past decade, however, Buether’s output has grown spare, streamlining designs and shaking them down: a white latticed grid for Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, the blinking black box of the Almeida’s Machinal [6]. The shift might date back to Cock, Mike Bartlett’s taut love-triangle play. All Buether did was create a tight circle of seating – a cockpit of a stage. “As you get older, you get a bit bolder,” Buether says.

Victor Chi and Katie Leung in Wild Swans at the Young Vic in 2012. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Victor Chi and Katie Leung in Wild Swans at the Young Vic in 2012. Photo: Tristram Kenton

If that sounds contradictory, given her work seems to have reined itself in, Buether believes there’s a boldness in restraint. “You think, ‘I don’t need that to tell this story. I can concentrate on this one thing and it will be much better for it.’ Design is an expression of the imagery in your head and, as you grow up, that crystallises. It’s concentrated.”

It’s deliberate: “I quite often look at things and think, ‘Oh, that’s too setty.’ If a design looks fake, I’m not interested. I like things to have their own integrity. I like theatres that don’t pretend to be something else.

“For me, the most successful designs are those that don’t look like designs at all.”

The Jungle runs at the Playhouse Theatre, London, until November 3. Visit nationaltheatre.org.uk [7]

CV: Miriam Buether

Born: Weimar, Germany, 1969
Training: Theatre Design at Central St Martin, London
Landmark Productions:
• The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Edinburgh International Festival (2004)

• Sucker Punch, Royal Court (2010)
• The Trial, Young Vic (2015)
• The Jungle, Young Vic/Playhouse Theatre (2017)
• Linbury Prize for stage design, overall winner, 1999

• Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland for The Wonderful World of Dissocia, 2004-05
• Hospital Club Creative Award, 2008
• Evening Standard Theatre Award for Sucker Punch and Earthquakes In London, 2010
• Critics’ Circle Award for Wild Swans, 2012
Agent: Tracy Alliston, Judy Daish Associates