The award-winning set designer talks to Eleanor Ross about her latest project, Jude Christian’s Othellomacbeth, the influences behind her work and why emotion plays a big part in inspiring her during the creative process
Basia Binkowska, winner of the 2017 Linbury Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for stage design, and nominated for best designer at The Stage Debut Awards is explaining her latest project, Othellomacbeth. “Human condition, the power of the patriarchy, and how the men kill the most important women in their lives: the link’s obvious when you look at them side-by-side,” she says.
It’s a two-for-one kind of show directed by Jude Christian, combining two of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies in one production – Othello in the first half and Macbeth in the second.
It’s also a mammoth undertaking. Not only does the set change to depict a different play part way through, but the play is also transferring from Home in Manchester to London’s Lyric Hammersmith with just a week between the two.
“These theatres have very different dimensions so the set needs to change slightly,” Binkowska says. “At Home, you have these two massive theatre towers on either side of the stage, but at the Lyric the set needs to sit within the 19th-century proscenium, so the design works slightly differently.”
The designer has to ensure that the emotional impact of the sets won’t be affected in the transfer. “Othello’s stage feels stuffy, claustrophobic even, but the staging for Macbeth, in the second half, is much more open. I call Othello’s set the oven, because the tension is extremely high and suffocating, and Macbeth’s the freezer.” The freezer? It should transfer you to a chilling place where conditions are inhumane, says Binkowska.
She moved to the UK five years ago to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland after growing up in Poland, where she had an extremely creative childhood.
“I’m the youngest of four and I went to music school. My parents thought if I went to music school, then I could do whatever I wanted to do after that. As long as I could play the piano, I was good to go.”
Aged 15, she realised being a concert pianist wasn’t the career for her. She went to the prestigious Bydgoszcz High School of Fine Arts and spent four years printmaking, studying art history, drawing, and sculpture. “Absolutely everything I studied there inspires my work today,” she says. “And I went to the theatre a lot, which helped me to realise I didn’t want to be an individual artist, a name, but part of a group of artists who achieve something creative together.”
Theatre fits the way Binkowska works, as does working with director Christian on Othellomacbeth. “The process is so collaborative. We have nine actors and they play characters in both Othello and Macbeth.”
Despite the large cast, all the actors have a say in how the play works. “With this production, the concept we’ve been exploring is how much text is given to female characters,” she says. “In Jude’s adaptation, men and women have equal speaking parts, and there’s a focus on the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry in both of these plays. She’s created a play with multiple layers, like pieces of a puzzle, a maze.”
To counterbalance the complexity of the play, Binkowska wanted to create a simple space, relatively prop-free, and one stark enough to complement the bleak narrative of both stories. After all, she says, these plays are essentially about femicide. “The rehearsal room is drawing influence from OJ Simpson, Oscar Pistorius – contemporary men [accused of killing their partners].”
When audience members enter the auditorium, the first thing they see is a huge metal wall. The actors have around 2 metres’ depth of space at the front of the piece of staging – it’s designed to be extremely shallow and claustrophobic.
“The audience is also slightly reflected in the sheet of aluminium at the front of the stage,” says Binkowska.
The texture and sound of materials are also extremely important for her as a designer, and she explains how, each time the actors hit the metal wall, an enhanced sound pre-recorded by sound designer Nick Gill will be heard. “The set is very much part of the sound. We use the metal bridge [that runs across the top of the stage] to attach a long string instrument to as well.”
She designed the set over the past year, since winning the Linbury Prize in November.
What was your first non-theatre job?
At 16, I worked on a film festival in Poland that took place in an opera house, so that’s still probably connected with the theatre.
If you hadn’t been a set designer, what would you have done?
Something to do with languages.
What is your next job?
Cuckoo at Soho Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s more technical than you think, but keep and prioritise your ‘artist’s mindset’ first.
“When I won, I knew I’d be working on Shakespeare. I got back to work with Jude in March 2018, and we’d meet up until I had the final design. We were pretty clear about what the set needed to be – it needed to allow you to devise within it.”
Shakespeare in the UK feels different from Shakespeare in Poland, something that has influenced her work. “In Poland, translators are contemporary poets, so the beauty of the words don’t change, but the actual words must, so there’s more freedom of interpretation.”
It’s not the only difference Binkowska has found between theatre in her native land and the UK. Here, theatre is entertainment, she says. It’s a way to pass an evening. But in Poland, it’s extremely political, and it’s art. It’s all state-funded, and Polish theatremakers have always been fighting against something, whether that’s being under Soviet rule, or when the wall came down.
Theatre has always been a way for theatremakers to comment on the system. “Also, the focus in Poland is very much on the director rather than the playwright. You go to see the director’s play, not the writer’s.”
Binkowska was inspired by theatre in Poland, singling out Teatr Nowy in Warsaw. Beyond its borders, she also hailed theatre company Vanishing Point, based in Glasgow. “I was lucky to work with Matt Lenton in my diploma production.” She also rates Sean Holmes’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The humour, and it had the best acting I’ve seen in British theatre. But Summer and Smoke at the Almeida, I just felt… well, I was shivering after it. Wow.”
Emotion plays a big part in Binkowska’s set-design process. “I’m probably slightly too emotional with my work,” she says. “I aim to make the final set feel like what the text felt to me when I first read it, that feeling inside.” When she designs, her goal is to transport the audience to the colours she saw and the sounds she heard when she first read a text, and then work closely with the director to transform that into a reality.
Binkowska isn’t the biggest fan of building every minute detail of the set before the production. “It’s a very British thing to perfectly construct each table and chair when you’re building a set. I like to create a collage of work. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a model really, because it changes all the time.”
Even after discussing her work, thinking about her processes, and looking at the rest of the year’s projects, it seems Binkowska still has to pinch herself that this is her life right now.
This year, she designed Devil With the Blue Dress at the Bunker Theatre followed by Reactor at Arts Ed. After Othello-macbeth comes Cuckoo at the Soho Theatre.
“I guess that’s what I am now, a theatre designer. I’ve had four productions straight after another, and I can’t quite believe it. This is my job now, I suppose.”
Born: 1993, Włocławek, Poland
Training: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (2016)
• Othellomacbeth, a Lyric Hammersmith and Home, Manchester production (2018)