Fly Davis: ‘My stage design training was crazy. I was hospitalised twice’

Fly Davis. Photo: Claudia Conway

In a feature that appeared in The Stage in January under the headline ‘young designers to watch in 2017’, Matt Trueman cited, among others, Fly Davis, whom he credited with “a riotous, playful streak that manifests itself in off-the-wall oddball shows”.

Talking to Davis in a chilly meeting room adjacent to Shakespeare’s Globe recently, I’m unsurprised to find that this dedicated 30-year-old has a twinkle in her eye despite being so cold that she huddles over a portable radiator in her overcoat as we talk.

When I point out that she is considered one of the hottest stage designers around right now, she retorts: “That’s all very well, but I’m permanently cold.”

We are meeting at the Globe because she has designed sets and costumes for Ellen McDougall’s production of Othello in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, famous for its exquisite Jacobean authenticity and candle-lit ambience, surely not the ideal combination for a designer who likes to play around with spaces and configurations, not to mention audience expectations.

The Remains of Maisie Duggan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 2016.

“It almost feels like a church,” she says of the SWP. “In some ways, the constraints of the space are also the beauty of it. You have to make a virtue of its colours, textures, shapes, as well as its essential masculinity, which suits the play. I’m using a lot of masculine accessories for Othello – breastplates, swords, ruffs, codpieces – to contrast as sharply as possible with the softness of the female characters.

“Clothes are always crucial to how a story is told, so I prefer to do both sets and costumes when I take a job. The symbolism of the codpiece, for instance, fascinates me, this ultimate outward manifestation of virility. Working at the Globe is like having a magic pen, the level of skill and love and care of their makers is extraordinary. I find it really moving.”

As often happens with stage designers, whatever their level of distinction, Davis has been working on two or three shows simultaneously. She is just back from Edinburgh where she has been collaborating with director Max Webster on a modern dress, Scottish-accented production of The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. The Stage critic Thom Dibdin called it “stark and to the point”.

Coming up in the spring, she has the Bruntwood prize-winning play How My Light Is Spent at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and a revival of Tony Kushner’s 2003 musical Caroline, Or Change at the Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by Michael Longhurst.

“I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can be a bit more choosy about what I do,” says Davis. “I prefer to work with directors who are playful and informal. I’ve never had a studio. I work at my house in Tulse Hill because I prefer a domestic setting. Even if something is really hard to get to grips with, enjoying what you do and having a good time is really important to me.”

Unsurprisingly, Fly is a nickname and also an acronym, standing for Francesca Lucy Young. As a child, Davis lived with her grandparents in Petersfield, Hampshire, and for a while used their surname, Young, which explains how she acquired her childhood nickname. She says she finds it useful having at least one name that people remember. Both her grandparents are creative – one a painter, the other a carver in wood – and she was seldom without a sketchbook.

’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole at the Gate Theatre, London, in 2014. Photo: Ikin Yum

“I was quite a solitary kid and I disappeared into my own fantasy world. Now I have to deal with both fantasy and reality in my work, but I can sometimes make my own version of reality.”

At school she became interested in theatre and performance, but quickly realised acting wasn’t her forte. Later, at Alton College, she divided her time between art and drama, but only discovered there was such a thing as a stage designer by her own research on the internet. In 2006 she was accepted for the all-round technical course at RADA, where the course tutor said she should apply to Motley, the legendary and bespoke theatre design course.

“They basically taught me everything I know and the voices of the course tutors, Alison Chitty and Ashley Martin-Davis, are still with me on every job I do, saying things like ‘let it breathe’ and ‘don’t cloud things’. There were 11 of us doing six big projects over a year. I used to get in at 6am and sometimes sleep there overnight. It was crazy and rigorous and addictive. I was hospitalised a couple of times. There was nothing else in my life at that time.”

Her first solo job, doing sets and costumes, was the Howard Brenton play Bloody Poetry at the White Bear pub theatre in south London in 2009. “I was paid £100, which seemed like quite a lot of money. I did a lot of shows for no money when I started. I lived with my aunt for nothing, and then with a friend’s parents. Having no money spurs you on to be successful. You have to believe in yourself because you know there are always going to be people who are better than you. There also has to be a certain amount of shameless self-promotion in order to get noticed.”

Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 2016. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Davis has become bolder and more conceptual in her work as time’s gone on. In Sarah Frankcom’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange last year, she carpeted the stage in green baize and created a harsh, cold environment into which Maxine Peake’s prissy, fox-furred Blanche DuBois would stray, like the Queen visiting a sink estate. For McDougall’s 2015 revival of The Glass Menagerie, the Wingfield family’s apartment became a spartan, coffin-like construct, isolated by a moat of dark water.

In London’s Gate Theatre’s claustrophobic and surreal I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole (2014), memorable mostly for having two live piglets on stage, Davis’ clinical white set, strewn with children’s toys, resembled a room in a mental health hospital.

“A lot of my work involves toying around with configurations as much as possible,” she says. “I like to push it as far as I can, whether that’s traverse or in-the-round. In my head I’m still the 16-year-old version of myself, feeling a bit disconnected from what’s happening on stage, so I try to reach out to people with my designs. You have two hours to bring people in from the outside, distract them, poke them, offer them a memorable experience.

“The design is about creating a framework for a piece of theatre and helping the audience to understand it. I’d find it very difficult to work with a director who doesn’t value the designer’s voice. I believe the designer’s input is becoming more and more a dramaturgical role, both vocally and aesthetically. I’m always quite vocal in the tech period, and during previews, because you’re seeing all the other elements – sound, lighting, sets, costumes – coming together. It has to work harmoniously as a package.”

Does she still find it all-consuming? “Oh yes, completely. You pour everything you’ve got into each show. It’s like falling in love, only sometimes that love is unrequited because you don’t get back what you put in. I tell myself daily it’s not good for me to be this dedicated, to be this consumed by it. I’d like a better work-life balance so that I can take time off and have a life. I love what I do, but I need to have more control over it. When it all comes together, it’s like nothing else.”

CV: Fly Davis

Born: 1987, Petersfield
Training: RADA technical theatre course; Motley theatre design course
Landmark productions: Theatre: I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Gate Theatre (2014), James and the Giant Peach, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (2014-15), Barbarians, Young Vic, London (2015), The Glass Menagerie, tour (2015), Opera for the Unknown Woman, tour (2016), A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2016), The Remains of Maisie Duggan, Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2016). Music videos: McFly’s Love Is Easy (2012)
Awards: Offie award for best set design for I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Gate Theatre, 2014
Agent: Julia Mills, Berlin Associates