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Lez Brotherston: ‘We are retelling The Red Shoes in our own way’

Lez Brotherston won the award for best design at the UK Theatre Awards 2016. Photo: Pamela Raith Lez Brotherston won the award for best design at the UK Theatre Awards 2016. Photo: Pamela Raith

The 22-year collaboration between choreographer Matthew Bourne and designer Lez Brotherston has produced a string of internationally acclaimed shows – the all-male Swan Lake (1995), Cinderella (1997), The Car Man (2000) and Edward Scissorhands (2005), to name just four. Their latest, The Red Shoes, an adaptation of the 1947 film about a ballerina forced to choose between ambition and love, recently opened in Plymouth.

As Bourne has generously remarked in the past, these shows are as much Brotherston’s as his, not least because the designer has always been key to their gestation, and the creative process has become symbiotic to the point where neither of them is really sure whose idea was whose.

Ashley Shaw in The Red Shoes. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Ashley Shaw in The Red Shoes. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

“Matt never says, ‘This is the way I want to do it.’ We make it up as we go along, like a massive jigsaw puzzle,” says 55-year-old Brotherston. “He likes to look at drawings and models I’ve made, see what’s on offer and then make choices. You have to feel comfortable enough with each other to be able to say, ‘Here’s an idea, it might be terrible.’

“We’ve been working on The Red Shoes on and off for two and a half years,” Brotherston says. “I’d always fancied doing a dance piece about Nijinsky and Diaghilev, so when I read that The Red Shoes actually started out as a script about them it became even more enticing. What happened was that in 1947 they couldn’t make a film about a gay love triangle, so they changed the genders and made it a story about a ballerina. So for me, it was two projects merging into one.”

The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a film-making double act of the 1940s and 1950s, much admired by Martin Scorsese, was conceived in quite a theatrical way: it is set mostly in a theatre, with lots of painted scenery and backdrops. Its colour cinematography was considered innovative in its day. Bourne has said the challenge was to capture “a surreal, sensuous quality within the more natural theatre setting”.

How much of an influence was the film on Bourne and Brotherston, given their well-known fondness for old movies?

“We looked at the film of course, but we didn’t take any one scene or image and try to recreate it in dance. There are similarities and parallels if you look for them. It is never about recreating the film, it’s about retelling a good story in our own way. I was well acquainted with Powell and Pressburger’s work and I looked at other backstage films of that era to see how people moved and what they wore. It’s all part of the immersion you go through.

“Dance pieces are very different from doing straight theatre because ultimately there is no script, so the designer is absolutely involved in the decision making and storytelling. When there are no words, the minute a character walks on stage you have to understand everything about them.”


Q&A: Lez Brotherston

What was your first  non-theatre job? Waiter at Pizza Express.

What was your first professional theatre job? Designing Handel’s opera Teseo at the Royal Northern College of Music.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s a lot of work for very  little money.

Who or what was your biggest influence? A whole generation of designers such as Maria Bjornson, John Gunter, Sue Blane, Alison Chitty, and my brilliant teacher at Central, Pamela Howard. They showed me what was possible.

If you hadn’t been a designer, what would  you have been? I don’t know. This is all  I can do.

What’s your best advice  for auditions? On the few occasions I’ve sat in on auditions, I couldn’t bear it. Matthew [Bourne] gets people to come in and do a class so it becomes more of a group thing.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I can’t stand sitting in the stalls seeing something not working, so I usually stand at the back when I’m watching one of my own shows.

Earlier in their partnership, one of Brotherston’s greatest challenges was reimagining Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s iconic 1990 film, and changing the 1980s setting to the 1950s. “My idea was to create the perfect American family. I thought if we could imagine a whole world around him first, then I could get away from the Goth look of the film.”

To help him achieve this, Brotherston enlisted his long-time costume maker Phil Reynolds who made the feathered legs for the male swans in Swan Lake. “Phil is a very creative maker and he knows what can and can’t be done. I always defer to the maker. When you’ve got someone like Phil, you’d be mad not to listen to him.”

One of the designs for Edward Scissorhands (2005)Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum/Lez Brotherston
One of the designs for Edward Scissorhands (2005)Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum/Lez Brotherston

Recently Brotherston spoke out about the number of regional theatres cutting back on their in-house making facilities (sets, props, flats, costumes and so on) to beef up administration teams. “Only the big regional reps have those kind of making facilities any more, and even they are outsourcing more and more. While I was doing the musical Flowers for Mrs Harris at Sheffield, the chief carpenter retired and it was decided not to replace him, which meant his two deputies lost their jobs. I had to get three quotes to outsource my set-build, and then wait four days for it to be delivered. The theatre suggested the crew should build it, but set building is a specialised skill. They’re not carpenters.

Adam Cooper in Swan Lake (1995). Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum/Lez Brotherston
Adam Cooper in Swan Lake (1995). Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum/Lez Brotherston

“When I was doing the 50th-anniversary production of Oh, What a Lovely War! at Theatre Royal Stratford East there was one full-time wardrobe person and one part-timer, working in a 10ft-square box, serving a large-scale musical. You walked down the corridor, and there were three people doing development, three people doing youth theatre, and so on. They’d rented out the rehearsal room for functions so we had to rehearse down the road. I believe actors should be in the theatre, working on the show.”

Brotherston continues: “The Royal Shakespeare Company has more people in its events department than in wardrobe. The balance is all wrong. Suddenly there seems to be a bigger focus on administration than there is on putting the shows on. The Arts Council is partly to blame because they’ve encouraged this explosion in administrators by insisting on grant-aided theatres showing how they are diversifying their audience. Nobody has time to do that so they have to employ someone to do it.”

In his youth, Brotherston belonged to the Liverpool Playhouse Youth Theatre where there were two resident designers, three wardrobe staff and a resident scene-painter, among others.  “It was like a little factory, full of people designing and making stuff. I wouldn’t have become a designer if I hadn’t come into contact with those Playhouse creatives. They encouraged and inspired me,” he says. “I went back there a few years ago and now it’s just a receiving house. It’s been asset-stripped.”

One of our most respected stage designers, especially when it comes to musicals, dance and opera, Brotherston receives many requests from design students to work as his assistant. So here is a tip for any would-be requesters: be sure to offer him a practical service. “I need people who are going to help me in specific ways, such as model-making or technical, not just stand around watching me work. Too few courses are giving them the practical skills they need to hit the ground running. You want an assistant to be able to bring certain skills to the table.”

Like many top designers, Brotherston is booked up several years ahead. As well as seeing The Red Shoes into Sadler’s Wells for an eight-week run, he is about to start work on a new show at Chichester Festival Theatre with Daniel Evans, and an anniversary show in 2017 called Early Adventures to celebrate 30 years of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company.

He says he has never been out of work and has rarely pitched for jobs. “If somebody asks to see my portfolio, I tell them that if they need me to prove I can do the job, I’m probably not the designer they’re looking for. I need them to tell me they want me in order for me to be able to do the job.”

CV: Lez Brotherston

Born: 1961, Liverpool
Training: Central School of Art and Design, 1981-83

Landmark productions: A Christmas Carol (1992), Nutcracker! (1992), Highland Fling (1994), Neville’s Island (1995), Swan Lake (1995), Cinderella (1998), Alarms and Excursions (1998), The Car Man (2000), Edward Scissorhands (2005), Lord of the Flies (2014), Sleeping Beauty (2015), The Red Shoes (2016)
Agent: Tracey Elliston, Judy Daish Associates

The Red Shoes runs at the Lowry, Salford, until December 3,  then at Sadler’s Wells, London, from December 6 to January 29, before touring venues nationwide until May 20