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Designer Tom Piper stages Chekhov in-the-round at Bristol Old Vic

Tom Piper and Michael Boyd. Photo: Jon Rowley Tom Piper and Michael Boyd. Photo: Jon Rowley
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In staging The Cherry Orchard at Bristol Old Vic and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the show’s designer, Tom Piper, is aiming to take two different buildings and create one unique stage. He speaks to Rosemary Waugh

The Bristol Old Vic is a theatre used to transformations. Built in 1766, the Grade I-listed building is in the throes of a multi-million-pound redevelopment project.

The building work will transform the front-of-house area, combining the historic facade on King Street with a sleek, glass-fronted piece of modern architecture. But it’s not just the outside of the Old Vic that’s about to undergo a significant metamorphosis. For the first time in its history, its Georgian auditorium is being reconfigured in-the-round, for Michael Boyd’s production of The Cherry Orchard.

For Tom Piper, Boyd’s long-term collaborator and the play’s designer, creating a co-production with the Manchester Royal Exchange was instrumental in drawing up this grand plan. “We felt it was very important that the production treated both of the houses with equal respect and therefore went with the in-the-roundness of the Royal Exchange and brought that to the Bristol Old Vic.”

Although this is the theatre’s first fully in-the-round production, it isn’t the first time directors and designers have experimented with its seating arrangement. Artistic director Tom Morris’ staging of The Crucible in 2015 featured two wooden blocks of onstage seating, while his semi-staged production of Handel’s Messiah – revived in 2017 four years after its premiere – included a small number of the audience seated on stage.

Messiah review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘beautiful semi-staged performance’

The difference for this production will be the minimal separation between the existing seating in the auditorium and the newly created seating structures on the stage. Piper stresses that in order to have a truly in-the-round staging it’s crucial “there shouldn’t be a perceived orientation or a right way to look at it”.

To achieve this, the stage is being extended by about three rows. This creates, in effect, a thrust stage – a layout familiar to Piper from his days working with Boyd at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This extension compromises the sight lines from the top of the upper circle, but Piper is keen to stress this is not a major handicap as the new seating structures contain an additional 100 seats, replacing the front rows covered by the thrust stage and those in the upper circle with restricted views. The result is approximately 400 people in the existing auditorium seats and 100 in the new structures, maintaining just about the normal capacity.

 Piper’s in-the-round design for The Cherry Orchard
Piper’s in-the-round design for The Cherry Orchard

The new two-tier seating blocks are made from scaffolding and covered in cladding matching the historic green interior. The use of scaffolding is for economic reasons, but the cladding serves a more artistic purpose. Piper’s vision is for the ornate walls of the theatre to stand in for the aristocratic house fated with destruction at the end of Anton Chekhov’s play.

“One of the lovely things about the space is that it does a lot of the work, because it becomes the house in The Cherry Orchard in the sense that we, the audience, are in the house,” Piper says. “It’s a beautiful, venerable house that has fantastic and painful memories.”

Likewise, when the production relocates to Manchester, Piper is considering using unique features of the former commodities exchange, such as the potential for the pink stone shell of the Great Hall to be glimpsed by the audience seated in its modern internal theatre, to suggest the looming demolition of the old-world house.

At Bristol Old Vic, the new seating isn’t the only major new feature. Piper and Boyd have also decided to include a revolve. At around seven-metres wide, the mechanism will help the staging resist the pull towards the audience seated in the traditional auditorium.

The designer cautions that they haven’t quite pinned down how the revolve will be used yet, but talks through a few possibilities, including the use of a quick revolve during the scene of the ball and a slow revolve to help evoke the wide open landscape when the action is located in the countryside.

The final large additional feature is a red velvet curtain. That might seem entirely at odds with an in-the-round staging. However, the idea is to have the audience in the new and old seating areas originally screened off from each other. The intention is to “puzzle the people from one side and annoy the people from the other”, until it flies away and reveals the other part of the in-the-round seating.

Cast members Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu
Cast members Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu

Inspired by the vaudeville shows Chekhov himself went to see, Piper and Boyd have a canny and playful idea for how this curtain is going to be used – though they wanted to keep this a secret ahead of the opening night.

Piper particularly likes the concept of the curtain because it capitalises on the current mid-redevelopment state of the Bristol theatre. At the moment, visitors arrive through a side entrance and head into a temporary backstage bar. To get to the auditorium, they’re sent though a mini-maze of staircases that make emerging into the auditorium something of a surprise.

“You’re sort of disorientating your audience in terms of their relationship with the building,” Piper says. “I think that’s quite a nice journey of discovery.”

All in, constructing the seating, rigging the curtain and putting in the revolve will take about a week. It’s no small job, but it’s about more than trying to wow the audiences. Piper sees the question of ‘why’ they are doing it as just as important as ‘how’.

He starts by explaining that in-the-round theatre spaces make “the theatre as democratic as you possibly can”. He goes on to say: “One of the things I really like about in-the-round and thrust theatre staging is that it becomes a lot more sculptural. As an audience member you’re looking at a group of figures in space and it doesn’t get flattened out, as can happen in proscenium theatre.”

In the case of The Cherry Orchard, he imagines the audience as standing in for the trees, effectively becoming a part of the scenery. Considering the audience in relation to his designs is something Piper mentions repeatedly.

Piper’s work Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London in 2014. Photo: Shutterstock
Piper’s work Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London in 2014. Photo: Shutterstock

Along with his extensive work for theatre, the designer’s most famous project has been the 2014 installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, made up of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London.

The installation was hugely popular and later toured to other locations, but Piper responded most to the “performative aspect of that installation, which arose purely by chance. The volunteers would become almost like performers. You got them creating the installation while people watched and then you got people applauding.”

What the poppy installation and the in-the-round transformation of the Bristol Old Vic have in common is their impressive visual ambition. But at the heart of Piper’s design work is a simple ethos and a commitment to entertain the audience.

“A lot of that goes back to my early experience working for Peter Brook’s company,” he says, “where you have an empty space and you create an atmosphere using the colour of the walls and what’s on the floor.”

The Cherry Orchard runs at Bristol Old Vic until April 7 and is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange from April 19 until May 19

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