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Jeremy Herbert: ‘Theatre is an opportunity to play’

Jeremy Herbert

If British theatre design is in rude health – striking visual gestures, reconfigured spaces, images begging for interpretation – Jeremy Herbert isn’t convinced. It’s not that the veteran designer disputes the quality (he doesn’t see enough theatre to judge), rather he believes ’twas ever thus. “People used to talk about designers’ theatre,” he says, intently. “It was a dirty word. ‘These awful designers running away with the idea that how you look at something might be as important, maybe even more important, than what you’re listening to.’ God forbid.”

This is the man who flew flowers in on darts in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed; who suspended a suburban marriage in a pitch-black void for Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song; who used the Royal Court’s three-tier auditorium as a stage, and let actors take crowbars to its walls. Herbert makes spaces speak volumes.

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange – that iconic, talky three-hander about a black mental patient and his two white shrinks – might be “a very brilliantly written argument,” but Herbert’s out to hold it in space. “What I’ve come up with is a particle collider. We’re showing the cloud chamber, like the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, and firing these characters into one another, seeing what bits fly off and whether we can pick up the pieces.”

Jeremy Herbert‘s set for Beat Furrer’s La Bianca Notte at Staatsoper Hamburg
Jeremy Herbert‘s set for Beat Furrer’s La Bianca Notte at Staatsoper Hamburg

He’s coy on the details, but it means reconfiguring the Young Vic – “absolutely and symmetrically in the round” – as he sees fit. “You’re very close to the actors, watching them prowling round one another.” He’s not bothered about naturalistic settings, but about feeling and focus.

“A large amount of stage design is focus,” he insists. “Persuading the audience to look at what you want them to. We’re not in the business of telling them what to think.”

By his own admission, Herbert is “a bit of a one-man band”. He is more likely to be found in the paintframe, knocking up a prototype, than showing off CAD drawings on an iPad. “I’ve never had a studio of people, and I’m never going to be a multi-millionaire, because the idea of delegating doesn’t appeal. I like doing things myself.”

His aim is always to free himself up. Model boxes are rough guides, not perfect miniatures. Ideas arrive unannounced. “The best design is very rarely conscious: picking an image, making it work. The skill is allowing your unconscious to unpick it for you.” Collaboration becomes key, “free-associating or riffing” off a director to “find images and ideas you wouldn’t have had by yourself writing notes”. He’s scathing of literalism – the sort of designer who seeks depth, resonance and elusiveness. Of good design, he says: “It doesn’t reduce the possibilities, but makes them broader. It should release something.”

building the set for Safe House at the Young Vic
Building the set for Safe House at the Young Vic

That feeds into his visual art: spatial installations. Safe House was a wooden structure with different chambers – dark, light, calming, cramped – each containing a sound recording contemplating the idea of home. At last year’s Frieze festival, he built an underground chamber, whipped by a wind machine. “I heard someone say, ‘Have you seen the Jeremy Herbert?’ I thought, ‘Fuck. Yes. I’ve arrived.’ Just as the whole idea of being an artist is being devalued, I’m an artist.”

His art is defiantly experiential, “evoking feeling and emotions through means other than the literal. You’re invited to suspend your quotidian and just be somewhere else”. Put like that, it sounds a lot like theatre.


Q&A: Jeremy Herbert

What was your first professional theatre job? Spanish Golden Age Plays at the Gate Theatre, directed by Laurence Boswell in 1991/92. 

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You can achieve much more than you think. Be ambitious.

Who are your biggest influences? Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris, The Wooster Group, Robert Lepage.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions? No.

Herbert was always destined to be a slashie – someone with a portfolio career. “I knew from an early age, I didn’t want to be defined by one thing,” he says. Having grown up in Dulwich – “nice school, nice middle-class upbringing” – he studied biology, then politics at York, before turning his hand to all sorts: journalism, music, galleries. He wrote the Dictionary of Gardening for a bit.

“I get bored easily,” he says. “ The thing about theatre is that it’s an opportunity to play. Every time you do it, you’re doing a different thing, activating different skills and ideas, meeting different people. It’s the most brilliant job.”

He turned to design in his mid-twenties, attending the design course run by Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris – a major influence – at Riverside Studios, which would later become Motley. His training went beyond the course. The Riverside “was one of those little fairytale places, a real melting pot”. Under David Gothard, it ran an eclectic programme and a buzzing bar: “Samuel Beckett would be having a Guinness with Mark E Smith from The Fall.” This was the stuff that really fired Herbert up: what he calls total theatre – “when somebody had the vision to make something that didn’t have any boundaries”. As well as the Wooster Group, he points to Robert Lepage and Forced Entertainment, artists that “understand you experience something with all your senses.

“That’s where theatre’s so far ahead. I love movies, music, all that, but you rarely see them combine in this amazing, exciting, visceral way. That’s the thing I can never get away from, however much I resent it or resist it. Theatre’s live. It’s in front of you. You have to be in the room with it.”

CV: Jeremy Herbert

Born: 1960, London
Training: Riverside School of Theatre Design

Landmark Productions: Cleansed, Royal Court (1998), 4.48 Psychosis, Royal Court, (2000), Hamlet, Young Vic (2012), Safe House, Young Vic (2014)
Awards: Arts Foundation award (1995), Barclays Theatre award for 4.48 Psychosis (2000), NESTA Fellowship (2004)
Agent: Tracey Elliston, Judy Daish Associates

Blue/Orange runs at the Young Vic, London, from May 12 to July 2

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