Since her work with experimental collective Shunt, Lizzie Clachan has brought radical designs to London’s biggest stages, including a forest of office furniture at the National and enclosing the actors in a glass box for Yerma. She tells Nick Smurthwaite about ripping up the rule book and why it’s important not to worry about the cost
If she hadn’t forged a career in theatre, Lizzie Clachan, one of the UK’s most exciting and innovative stage designers, might have realised her childhood dream of being a shark hunter. She certainly wouldn’t have been in public relations – when describing her set for Rutherford and Son, now running in the National’s Lyttelton theatre, she says, bluntly: “It’s actually quite hideous.”
For Githa Sowerby’s 1912 proto-feminist drama, set in a northern industrial town, Clachan and her director, Polly Findlay, wanted a “super-naturalistic” design. “Polly and I agreed we didn’t want some lovely, tasteful Victorian terrace house interior,” she says. “So it is dark, predominantly brown and clumsy, with too much furniture and three kinds of wallpaper that don’t match. They viewed interior design differently then.”
The pair last worked together at the National on a modern-dress As You Like It in the Olivier in 2015, which was memorable for the Forest of Arden set piece at its heart. Instead of an arboreal idyll, the mock corporate environment of Duke Frederick’s court was hoisted aloft to form an expressionistic forest of tables and chairs. As one critic described it: “Imagine an Ikea warehouse being blown sky-high then freeze-framed.”
Clachan says: “When it worked it was fantastic, but the stage manager was constantly having to come on stage and apologise to the audience for yet another technical hitch. I saw it as a brilliant intervention and I don’t think the audience minded. It was a reminder that they were at a one-off live experience. I’m not sure the National enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Findlay says: “Lizzie has an amazingly versatile imagination. She can bend her brain around an astonishingly diverse range of projects, and always manages to find a fresh, surprising way of approaching them. What I love about working with her is that she treats each production as a way of pushing boundaries, both in terms of her own process and in the nature of the invitation she is extending to the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her repeat or recycle an idea: she comes to every new project with the kind of clear-sighted, ruthless honesty that always produces an entirely original idea.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Stacking shelves in my local supermarket in Purley.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Designing a show for Croydon Youth Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That even in a large and intimidating organisation, departments and individuals fuck up all the time. So you won’t be the only one.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Powell and Pressburger, Mr Ben, Twin Peaks and Romeo Castellucci.
If you hadn’t been a stage designer, what would you have been?
As a child I wanted to be a shark hunter or a meteorologist, so later I decided an artist might cover all the bases.
Do you have any advice for would-be designers?
Harness your flexible and pragmatic side or you will end up frustrated.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
A glass of wine… and a bag of Revels if it’s going to be a long one.
Clachan’s delight in things not working as expected harks back to the beginning of her career with the groundbreaking collective Shunt in the late 1990s, which she started with a group of friends from different disciplines and backgrounds. Shunt’s big idea was to explore the live event in found spaces, rather than create perfectly formed pieces of theatre in conventional settings.
Initially the company was holed up in some unprepossessing railway arches in Bethnal Green but as its reputation – and funding – grew, it moved on to a vast labyrinth of vaults underneath London Bridge station.
But that was Clachan’s way of engaging with live performance, having expected through her formative years to become a fine artist. She says: “Theatre always seemed to me old-fashioned and dull. At art school [in Edinburgh], the worlds of art and theatre didn’t mix at all. I was only interested in the comedy shows at the festival, though I did have a small part in Simon Stephens’ first play – as a stripper. All I can remember about it is the Scotsman saying my striptease was gratuitous.”
So how did she end up in theatre? “What changed it for me was doing art installations through which I became engaged by the idea of an audience in different environments.”
Returning to London, where she had grown up, Clachan was persuaded by a friend to design a show for Croydon Youth Theatre, and she went on to do a postgraduate course in theatre practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
By the time she left Shunt, Clachan was sold on the idea of working in theatre design, though she still preferred doing it to watching it. “I’m just not good at sitting still in the dark for any length of time,” she says. “I prefer the cinema. I’m always judging the theatre, and I suppose I find it hard to relax. I probably need to go more often.”
Initially, she says, she brought the radical Shunt ethos to whatever she did, working with Ramin Gray at London’s Royal Court – “he taught me a lot about dramaturgy and working from the text” – and Sarah Frankcom, at that time an associate director at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Collaborating with building-based directors was a revelation to her. “With Shunt you had to do everything yourself, whether it was hiring a digger or nailing the set together. Having the infrastructure of an organisation was a real luxury.”
Ten years on from Shunt, she finds it increasingly difficult to hold on to those radical ideas, even though the company’s effect still seems evident in nearly everything she does. “I’m not generating the work in the same way I did before,” she says. “It’s not that it’s less interesting, it’s just different.”
But look at the evidence. Her debut gig in the Olivier, Treasure Island in 2014, made spectacular use of the drum revolve, bringing the mighty Hispaniola out of the bowels of the building, replete with masts and rigging. In Joe Wright’s acclaimed revival of Brecht’s Life of Galileo the following year, Clachan reconfigured the Young Vic into a circus-like arena, with jaw-dropping effects of planetary activity projected on to an overarching screen. For The Skriker at the Royal Exchange, directed by Frankcom, Clachan tore up the seats to make a catwalk for faeries to strut down and banquet on.
She told an interviewer at the time: “To be fair to all the other designers who have worked in that space, I was allowed to disrupt it, to do things people aren’t usually able to be, because it was the festival and they were in the middle of a refurbishment of the building.”
Invited back to the Young Vic in 2016, she staged another coup de theatre with Simon Stone’s radical reinterpretation of Yerma, enclosing the stage in a huge glass case. It was the first of three contemporary re-imaginings of classics with Stone, the others being Three Sisters in Basel and Ibsen Huis in Amsterdam both in 2017. For the latter, a rotating, two-storey, transparent house allowed the audience to peer voyeuristically through its windows.
Like many well-established stage designers, Clachan prefers to work with directors who both challenge her and make her feel safe. She says: “I like facing challenges. The tougher it is, the better I like it. If it’s too easy, I’ll over-complicate it. The directors I work with are usually up for radical solutions, but it’s the buildings that struggle to accommodate you. Design can be imagined in so many different ways that you don’t want to limit yourself by worrying about the budget, otherwise you end up being under-ambitious. I’m always over budget.”
As well as a new show for the Manchester International Festival in July at the award-winning Stoller Hall, Clachan is currently working on the Orpheus Series with English National Opera – four separate works based on the Orpheus legend, with four separate directors: Wayne McGregor, Emma Rice, Netia Jones and Daniel Kramer.
“I’ve been working on it for a year. It’s the most technical thing imaginable – a total headache,” she says with characteristic honesty. “They all want an entirely different look.”
Does the job keep her awake at night? “Yes it does, although I’ve become much better at dealing with the stress. When I started out, I used to get endless ulcers and ear infections. These days, I’m a lot more pragmatic. I tell myself: ‘You know, it will sort itself out.’ I have an 11-year-old son and a writer husband who works at home, so at the end of the day I’m distracted and consumed by domestic life.”
Born: 1972, London
Training: Edinburgh School of Art (1990-94); Central School of Speech and Drama (1996)
Landmark productions: Ladybird, Royal Court, London (2005); Tropicana, Shunt Vaults, London Bridge (2006); Absolute Beginners, Lyric Hammersmith (2007); Money, Shunt (2009); A Woman Killed by Kindness, National Theatre (2011);Jumpy, Royal Court (2011); A Season in the Congo, Young Vic, London (2013); Treasure Island, NT (2014); Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Theatre, London (2015); The Skriker, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2015); As You Like It, NT (2015); Yerma, Young Vic (2016); Life of Galileo, Young Vic (2017); Jenufa, Dutch National Opera (2018)
Agent: Mark Price at AHA
Rutherford and Son runs at the National Theatre until August 3