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‘I don’t see myself as a designer – I make shows’

Theatremaker Ultz cites the Jez Butterworth plays he worked on at London’s Royal Court as career highlights. Photo: Peter Litvai Theatremaker Ultz cites the Jez Butterworth plays he worked on at London’s Royal Court as career highlights. Photo: Peter Litvai

Single-name monikers are usually the domain of pop stars – Cher, Madonna, Bjork – not theatre designers, but then Ultz has always followed his own path. In an eclectic 45-year career he has worked in opera, hip hop, on cutting-edge drama (including 16 world premieres at the Royal Court), intimate fringe shows and massive European stages.

ultz cvHe’s taught himself Japanese and Italian in order to direct and design foreign language productions and has travelled the world carrying out meticulous research. He’s worked with directors including Dominic Cooke, Ian Rickson, Femi Elufowoju Jr and Joan Littlewood. He won an Olivier award for best set design for Jerusalem, as well as the one for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre for his production Pied Piper – A Hip-Hop Dance Revolution, which he directed as well as designed.

Looking over his CV, he emerges as something of a monolith, as totemic as his single name. But he’s also an enigma, constantly shifting and changing before he can be categorised. Even after four decades, there are hardly any interviews with him. I’m imagining a cross between a mafia boss, a movie star and an American rapper. What I get is a mild-mannered English gent with pale blue eyes and a soft laugh that he breaks into frequently. He is charming and down to earth, although he does say the name Ultz came to him in a dream.

I feel like a spoilsport, but when I tell him I’ve found out his name is David, he grins. “I think only my mother calls me David Ultz, and the passport office. You have to have two names there, I’ve tried it,” he says.

“I chose Ultz to be a trademark. I was taught by Motley, which was three women working under one name. When I found out I couldn’t have my name working in the actor’s trade union I started to make up all these different possible names. Ultz came in a dream. I couldn’t say it, but I could sign it easily. It was while I was designing a play by Jonny Gems, son of Pam Gems, and he got these pencils printed with Ultz on them,” he says, his grin widening. “It’s only a short trip from the souvenir pencil to the passport office.”

He adds: “I thought it was good like Sellotape or Durex – like a brand, although it was long before branding.”

Ultz says he always knew he wanted to work in theatre. “I never thought I’d do anything else. My father made me a model theatre for my birthday when I was seven,” he says letting out another soft laugh. “We had an old gramophone so I managed to make that the revolve and build up around it. But it meant I had to design everything around the centre bit. So I went through my Gordon Craig phase when I was about 10 or 11.”

A scene from Jerusalem, for which Ultz won an Olivier award for best set design, at London’s Royal Court in 2009
A scene from Jerusalem, for which Ultz won an Olivier award for best set design, at London’s Royal Court in 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The idea of becoming a human brand also encompasses how expansive he sees his role as a theatremaker. “I don’t really quite see myself as a designer, I’m someone who makes shows, or works on shows,” he explains. “I feel that the way you make a costume come alive in a fitting is the same as that moment when an actor suddenly feels they’ve got the scene. Or when someone like Ian Rickson suddenly has a scene come alive in his hands, it’s all the same thing to me.”

Ultz says that as career highlights go, the Jez Butterworth plays he worked on at the Royal Court, including Jerusalem, are up at the top (along with Pied Piper, but more of that later). His design for this award-winning behemoth turned the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs into a rich natural palace for Mark Rylance’s freewheeling, charismatic Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron to roam and rule in.

The feel of the piece was created thanks to a long process of discovery that encompassed the whole creative team. “There was a lot of specific research of people in the West Country at carnivals, and Mark went and met people who might have been involved with those it was based on while Jez wrote it. The way Mark works [meant] there was a picture of Geronimo inside the carriage. He brings so much to the design that’s imbued with the personality he’s assuming.”

Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays and Brendan Coyle in Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays and Brendan Coyle in Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This meticulous way of working chimes with Ultz’s own approach to research and development, which is expansive to say the least. He’s just returned from the US on a working trip for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which he’s designing at the National Theatre in February.

“We’ve bought a lot of 1920s suits from a specialist in the New York district and did a lot of background research in Atlanta. We went to Ma Rainey’s house in Columbus and studied at Schomburg Center in Harlem and the Smithsonian in Washington,” he explains. “I don’t think anyone’s ever really understood how African-American musicians dressed in the 1920s. If you look on YouTube, they all look like they’re from Guys and Dolls. They’re all wearing stripy suits with 1940s shoulder pads.”

By engaging in such detailed preparation, Ultz wants to bring a cultural authenticity to his designs that subverts easy visual categorisation. “So many productions put out the same signifiers. It seems that there’s a certain dark wood, boots and trench coats that equal a kind of gravitas in a Shakespeare,” he says. “But how you get out of the theme-parkness of that is the really difficult thing. And I don’t mean you should insult an audience by giving them the exact opposite of what they want. But surely you can say, ‘Have you thought of this?’.”

Ultz won an Olivier for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre for Pied Piper – A Hip-Hop Dance Revolution, seen here at the Barbican Theatre in 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ultz won an Olivier for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre for Pied Piper – A Hip-Hop Dance Revolution, seen here at the Barbican Theatre in 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This applies to his own career as much as his design. Before he won an Olivier for Jerusalem, he had already picked one up for Pied Piper – A Hip-Hop Dance Revolution. An adrenaline-fuelled hip hop piece with a thumping urban soundtrack is not what you’d immediately expect from a 60(ish)-year-old white man. However, for Ultz it was a natural progression, which started with a flatmate who loved Tupac, went via a mentoring programme with Stratford Youth Theatre, into his production Da Boyz and ended with him approaching Theatre Royal Stratford East artistic director Kerry Michael and Kenrick “H2O” Sandy from Boy Blue Entertainment with Robert Browning’s poem before the eventual collaboration.

ultz Q&AHe says his eclectic choices come from a need to challenge himself constantly and learn something new. “I think I always want to be in a position where I’m going to be doing something I haven’t done before because I think it would be boring to repeat,” he says.

Consequently, he’s excited to be working on Marguerite Duras’ La Musica, the next in the Classics for a New Climate season at the Young Vic. As a low-carbon production, it has brought a wealth of new challenges for the designer. “It’s huge; there were so many things we wanted to do. We were inspired by Katie Mitchell – the play she did in Germany where the actors were cycling to produce the lights. We thought about building a machine for the front row of the audience to cycle or to pedal to keep the lights going but it’s too expensive. We thought about solar panels, but we’re doing it in November.

“For a long time we were going to have a hydrogen cell in the room, but the cost of bringing it here would have outweighed the benefits,” he explains practically. “But we have reduced the lighting. It is all being run on 12 kilowatts and the show would normally be four times that – we’re using LED lights and light from outside because there’s a window in that room.

“I live just there [he indicates up the road from the Young Vic], just on Lower Marsh, so that’s why I was hired because my carbon footprint was very small,” he jokes. “Everything’s recycled so we’re using the wood from The Trial to build the audience balcony. We’re not having a programme, we’re going to put lettering around the walls to inform the audience of who did what,” he stops and smiles cheerfully.

“We’re still on the quest, so it’s hard to know what we’ve achieved. But the great thing is that we become aware, or more aware.”

It’s a notion that seems to sum up this inquisitive theatremaker to a tee.

La Musica runs at the Young Vic, London, until October 17

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