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Touching the Void designer Ti Green: ‘This job is not just choosing the chairs, it’s shaping the narrative’

Theatre designer Ti Green. Photo: Caroline Lang

The award-winning designer is moving mountains with her recreation of the Peruvian peak Siula Grande for Touching the Void. She tells Heather Marks about creating an enormous land mass out of kinetic sculpture…

The Siula Grande mountain is a 6,344-metre peak in the Peruvian Andes. With dangerous weather patterns and treacherous ice cliffs riddled with crevasses, it is climbable only two months of the year and known as one of the deadliest peaks in the world. For the next few weeks, though, it has been relocated to the West Country, or at least a version of it has, residing on the Bristol Old Vic stage.

The mountain is a key piece of set design for the first theatrical adaptation of Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s nail-biting 1988 memoir. The book, which has sold more than a million copies and was adapted into an acclaimed docudrama film in 2003, tells of a disastrous attempt to scale the mountain by Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates.

Award-winning designer Ti Green was in charge of bringing a significant part of the Peruvian mountains to Bristol. “It’s a bonkers enterprise but very good fun,” she says.

Green, who has a CV that stretches to more than 75 shows across the UK’s biggest producing theatres, decided against a monumental set of towering ice walls and rocky outcrops. She is instead using the aesthetic that has informed much of her acclaimed work over a career of more than 25 years, which started with designing Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca in 1994. It was directed by Steve Hudson at an underground fringe venue in Paddington run by Rufus Norris, who “showed an early aptitude for running theatres”, she says.

To recreate Siula Grande for the Bristol Old Vic, Green used a combination of the Poor Theatre style – which dispenses with lavish sets and costumes – and the technological, using three-dimensional mapping technology and kinetic sculptures to provide the treacherous backdrop for the climbers, played by Edward Hayter and Josh Williams.

Fiona Hampton as in Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Geraint Lewis
Fiona Hampton in Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Geraint Lewis

The mountain is an open climbing structure, and its kinetic structure means its composition is continually changing, “so that while the actors are on top of the mountain they can also be within it”. Her minimalistic approach to reducing the enormous land mass into movable lines shows her artist’s eye. It also enables the Peruvian landscape to be far more interesting than a fixed backdrop. Recent productions show off her ability to sway from realism and let bold images speak for themselves. In Dido, Queen of Carthage at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre last year, her evocative design used sand and rain to bring the requisite elemental feel to the production.

In 2016’s The Emperor, staged at London’s Young Vic and Home in Manchester a year later, two towering walls of speakers dwarfed Haile Selassie’s court; a year earlier she brought a chilling simplicity to Playing for Time at the Sheffield Crucible with two gleaming railway lines bisecting the stage.

Kathryn Hunter in The Emperor – review at the Young Vic Theatre, London

“I like to find something that feels elemental to the ideas of the show. I’m not interested in the surface world,” says Green. “I’m interested in the core idea and narrative, in finding a way to express that visually so that the actor can inhabit and interact with the physical world. Often I create spaces that can be climbed or used in physically unexpected ways.”

Her design aesthetic was heavily influenced by Ralph Koltai, the eminent theatre designer for the RSC, whom she used to assist. “He really brought abstract thinking into theatre design and did away with the fourth wall and the box set,” she says. “He was a real purist in his vision and approach; I found that incredibly inspiring. He saw theatre design as a sculpture and a work of fine art. I love the independence of that.”

Edward Hayter in rehearsals for Touching the Void. Photo: Geraint Lewis

Green’s design principles has brought her together with likeminded directors, with whom she has tended to work again and again, including Roxana Silbert and David Farr. One collaboration she picks out is with the outgoing artistic director of Home, Walter Meierjohann. “A lot of my best work has been done with Walter,” she says. “He has that European director’s taste for minimalist but very strong visual statements.”

The first production they worked on was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 2011, a co-production between Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse, and then Unleashed the following year. That was a project made with 152 young performers from East London – drummers, dancers, musicians, poets and filmmakers – at the Barbican. “It was political and powerful; their voices were so strong, and they were so energised by it they were still performing it in the streets after the show – they couldn’t put it down,” says Green. “It was absolutely spine-tingling, an extraordinary thing to be part of.”

Two years later the pair worked on Romeo and Juliet together, Meierjohann’s first show as artistic director of Home. It was a site-specific production at the Victoria Baths designed to make an impact, and it did; the production won Green the best design prize at the Manchester Theatre Awards. She created a softly lit swimming pool split by a golden cruciform, with the sleeping Juliet in the centre, the coup de theatre for the final act.


Q&A Ti Green

What was your first non-theatre job?
Cooking supper for six nuns in a suburban convent.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Doing show laundry at the Orange Tree Theatre.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Take holidays.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Bill Bryden and Complicite.

What is your next job?
Opening Rebus at Birmingham Rep.

If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
There was no alternative. I can’t imagine having taken another road.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, none.

Other productions together included The Funfair at Home in 2015, written by Simon Stephens, so atmospheric that Lyn Gardner wrote “you can almost smell the candyfloss and chip fat”, and The Emperor a year later. For Green, who was nominated for best design at the Evening Standard awards for The Revenger’s Tragedy at the National Theatre, it all started at that venue on the South Bank.

She remembers a 1985 production of The Mysteries directed by Bill Bryden: “It was performed in promenade in the old Cottesloe and it was an incredible communal experience between the audience and the performers – I went 14 times.”

“At that point I wanted to be a painter but then discovering the relationship between the audience and theatremaker was so powerful I turned my eye towards theatre and because I’m visual, it focused into design.” She adds: “Design is dramaturgical. It’s not just about choosing chairs, it’s about shaping the narrative.”

‘I like to find something that’s elemental to the ideas of a show. I’m not interested in the surface world’

An English degree from Cambridge University and a postgraduate degree in theatre design at Slade School of Art has trained Green in how the text as well as the visual works, something that comes across clearly in her style.

The job that made all the difference for her career came up during a season at the Battersea Arts Centre, overseen by Tom Morris, now artistic director at Bristol Old Vic, in which critics and directors swapped roles.

A scene from The Funfair at Home, Manchester. Photo: Graeme Cooper
A scene from the Ti Green-designed The Funfair in 2015. Photo: Graeme Cooper

“I was designing a show directed by Jeremy Kingston, who was the Times’ theatre critic, and the Times sent Peter Hall to review it. He consequently gave me a job, even though I was still at arts school. He clearly decided he would do me a good turn, and however terrible that play might have been, that job would mean I had the start of a career.”

It is a career that now spans 25 years. To be a good designer, she believes, takes time, “a good 10 or 15 years” to mature out of self-doubt into a confident, original creator.

“You have to be tough on yourself and work hard, develop your instincts and locate what you do that is narratively useful, beautiful, or ugly in the right way,” says Green. “Since having a child I’ve become much more productive because I don’t often get a second pass at things in my schedule. I’ve become more direct and honest with myself when making those decisions.”

Decisions that are increasingly subject to the issue facing all theatres in Britain – funding. The lack of funding, coupled with the rising cost of materials, has led to many co-productions. And while collaboration can create great theatre, it also reduces the availability of work for many designers, inducing a pressure to survive in which, Green says, everyone feels the strain. “But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a wealth of imagination and skill that designers employ to get around that,” she adds.

She’s happy to be back in Bristol, at a venue she has not worked at for more than a decade. She looks back on the shows there, all directed by Farr, with fondness. These include Comedy of Errors in 2003, Paradise Lost a year later, which was nominated for a TMA award for best design, and Tamburlaine in 2005.

“I love Bristol Old Vic, I’m so happy to be back. I haven’t worked there for a long time, but it’s always been my favourite theatre in the country, it’s so special.” And she has brought a special piece of set design in Siula Grande. And she reveals that the design team has come up with an affectionate nickname for it. “She is quite extraordinary,” Green says. “For a long time we called her the Shard but then she became Doris, once we made friends with her.”

CV: Ti Green

Born: 1969, London
Training: Theatre Design, Slade School of Art (1997)
Landmark productions:
• Coram Boy, National Theatre, London (2006)

• Romeo and Juliet, Home, Manchester (2014)
• Manchester Theatre Award for best design for Romeo and Juliet, 2014

Agent: Alice Dunne, United Agents

Touching the Void runs at Bristol Old Vic until October and then tours until March

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