A new exhibition at the National Theatre, Playing With Scale, explores why, in the digital era, theatre designers still use model boxes and features a selection from its own Olivier stage. Nick Smurthwaite finds out more
In the digital age, it is surprising to find stage designers still using tools and methods that have been around since the 16th century. When technology can realise high-definition 3D imaging of scenery, why do so many designers still rely on the age-old technique of scaled-down model boxes?
A free exhibition at London’s National Theatre explores the question of why model boxes continue to be so crucial to the designer’s art. Playing With Scale has been curated by writer and theatremaker Eleanor Margolies, who believes stage design is at a unique point in its history where both analogue and digital are working side by side in harmony.
“Designers still need the model boxes but they very often use them to generate digital images,” says Margolies. “The designers I spoke to for the exhibition all said nothing will replace the physical experience of a model box. It is easier to replicate the experience of the audience with a model box than with digital, and it enables the designer to make decisions about what kind of textures they want, and how the actors are going to move around the finished set.”
The exhibition features the work of seven designers responding to a distinctive space – the National Theatre’s Olivier stage – over a 40-year period. It starts in 1977 with the second production designed for the Olivier: Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, directed by Bill Bryden and designed by Geoffrey Scott.
The critic Charles Spencer praised Scott’s attention to detail, “evoking the atmosphere of the Dublin tenement with such microscopic accuracy that you can imagine the smell of the place and the creak of the floorboards”.
Scott’s assistant was a young Bob Crowley, now one of our most distinguished stage designers, who is reunited with Scott in a touching video by Margolies. Together they are seen unwrapping the original box set for The Plough and the Stars, which has been languishing in the National Theatre Archive all this time. Crowley says to Scott: “I built the model from your drawings, which is most unusual now.”
In another video, Bunny Christie talks about her extraordinary cityscape set for The Comedy of Errors in 2011, using the intricate model box to illustrate her commentary. She says: “A lot of people love model boxes because they’re like doll’s houses but they are just a tool for the designer.”
Christie won an Olivier award for her designs for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for which she not only made a model box but also produced a movie-style storyboard. She explains: “The story has to unravel in front of you and the design must enhance that. It was one way of ensuring maximum fluency.”
Building a model is a way for the designer to think in three dimensions, looking closely at the space available to them, and speculating about its possibilities.
“Experimentation is crucial,” says Hildegard Bechtler, whose model box for this year’s Antony and Cleopatra is featured. “It’s a place to experiment and dream without the anxiety and pressure of the real thing.”
Designer Lizzie Clachan describes it as a problem-solving tool. She says: “If it’s hard to make something stand up in a model, you’re going to have the same problem in real scale. I like to be able to look the set builders in the eye and know that I haven’t tried to defy physics.”
Most set models are made on a scale of 1:25, which means a door two metres tall is represented in the model by an eight centimetre-equivalent. Sketch models, or white card models, are often half that size, ie 1:50, making it easier to carry them to the endless creative meetings that precede each production.
A final model can be a beautiful work of art, but its usefulness goes far beyond the aesthetics of the skilful creation of a miniature world. As Margolies puts it: “Models are always in a conversation with an existing space.”
The model for Polly Findlay’s modern-dress Antigone, staged in 2012, is also on display. Its designer Soutra Gilmour says: “It is always site specific, whether I am in a found space, a West End proscenium, or the Olivier. It is a dialogue with the place.”
Of course different designers have different ways of working with directors, and there are many examples of designer-director collaborations that have endured for years. Lez Brotherston has been working with choreographer Matthew Bourne for almost a quarter of a century – to the point where the creative process has become symbiotic, but the model boxes remain important to the process.
Brotherston says: “We make it up as we go along, like a jigsaw puzzle. Matthew likes to look at drawings and models I’ve made, see what’s on offer, and then we start to make choices.”
Making choices is a key element to the evolution of the design process. It often involves design assistants and model makers who bring their own artistic sensibility to the work as well as realising the designer’s vision.
Margolies writes in her introduction to the exhibition: “The design process for theatre involves zooming out to a distance at which the whole performance space can be held in mind, and then zooming in to define small physical details for construction. Physical models have always played a significant role in thinking ‘across scales’ because models allow us to grasp something.”
Anthony Ward, one of the featured designers, admits to making “dozens” of models and drawings – he is not a fan of the white card option – over 12 months for this year’s revival of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King at the National, with the help of his assistant Luke Smith. “I find drawing can really help focus the mind,” he says. “White card lacks atmosphere.”
Ward’s tenacity evidently paid off. Dominic Cavendish, reviewing the production in the Telegraph, spoke of “a scenic astonishment” in the play’s denouement.
Herbert, who died in 2003, was the main inspiration for the exhibition. She worked extensively at the Royal Court, the Old Vic and the National Theatre. The exhibition recreates a corner of her west London studio, with scale model figures, drawings and paintings, and her work on The Life of Galileo (1980), starring Michael Gambon, is also featured.
Dudley, one of the first designers to use the Olivier’s drum revolve to full effect, is celebrated here for The Shaughraun (1988), directed by Howard Davies.
Scott, now retired from the theatre, worked with Bill Bryden on The Plough and the Stars in 1977. Together with the Irish actor Cyril Cusack, Scott and Bryden took time off to visit Ireland in the pre-production period to check out the tenements and pubs of Dublin, where the play is set. Scott’s assistant was a very young Bob Crowley.
Bechtler designed the National’s current Antony and Cleopatra. She and director Simon Godwin used the cinematic expedient of a storyboard to move fluidly through the worlds of Egypt and Rome.
Gilmour worked alongside director Polly Findlay on the 2012 modern-dress Antigone. They looked at the films Dr Strangelove and The Lives of Others, as well as the Churchill War Rooms and a nuclear bunker in Essex. In Gilmour’s design, curved walls of concrete enclose a military control centre.
Christie is represented by The Comedy of Errors (2011), again modern dress, aspiring to suggest the teeming city, moving from the docks to the city centre of shopfronts and alleyways.
Ward, a distinguished veteran, designed Ionesco’s Exit the King, placing the whole set on the front of the drum revolve
For the designer, one of the great challenges of working on a show in the Olivier is whether or not to deploy the famous drum revolve, and, if so, how to integrate it into the overall design.
The first design to make full use of the drum revolve after the National opened on the South Bank was The Shaughraun in 1988, directed by Howard Davies and designed by Bill Dudley. When he got the commission, Dudley had no idea he could use the drum revolve but happened to overhear a couple of in-house engineers discussing it in the staff canteen. It enabled him to combine sculptural scenery with lighting and mist to achieve rapid changes of setting, from a ruined castle to the rugged coast of Sligo.
The exhibition includes a digitalised video of the workings of the drum revolve. Margolies says: “The Olivier was a completely unique and different space when it first opened, and made very specific demands of directors and designers. It was influenced by a trip to Epidaurus, the open-air amphitheatre in Greece by the building committee, led by architect Denys Lasdun. They wanted the audience and the performers to feel they were all in the same room.”
Hundreds of scale models were made by Lasdun’s architectural studio prior to the construction of the Olivier, two of which are on display. Lasdun told designer Jocelyn Herbert, one of his advisers, that his aim was to achieve “a spatial relationship between people sharing an experience”.