Designer Vicki Mortimer: ‘If the set looks fake, you can’t expect the actor to be convincing’
The Olivier winner has become the National Theatre’s go-to designer, creating the world of some of its most groundbreaking productions in the last 25 years. She tells Matt Trueman about her three-decade creative partnership with Katie Mitchell, how she fights for detail audiences can’t see, and why designing Follies was a gift
If the National Theatre gave out caps as the England football team does – and incidentally it should – then Vicki Mortimer would rank among the all-time greats. This week, the prodigious designer opens her 34th show for the three stages on the South Bank, even if this time she will find herself upstaged by a first-timer: Cate Blanchett, who is making her NT debut.
On the list of most-capped theatremakers however, it is a moment. Mortimer will move ahead of one artistic director, Peter Hall, and alongside another, Nicholas Hytner, though she is still shy of the late Howard Davies, a long-time associate, and his 36 NT caps.
The new play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, moves Mortimer into second place on the list of most prolific designers at the NT. She leapfrogs the former head of design John Bury, whose 33 NT openings include the original Amadeus and Hall’s Oresteia, to draw level with Hytner’s go-to scenographer Bob Crowley and one-time resident designer Alison Chitty. Only William Dudley has more design credits – 44 shows in almost four decades. Mortimer has accrued hers in just 25 years.
While numbers count for nothing in art, it is nonetheless a remarkable achievement – testament to a designer of exceptional talent and craft. Mortimer is almost the National’s in-house designer and we meet as she’s mid fit-up in the Dorfman, five days until the first preview. With her technical team working away next door, we stick close in the foyer so she’s on-hand for queries or emergencies. As ever, there’s plenty to pull together.
Dressed in a black turtleneck with an Inca-inspired necklace offsetting her silvery asymmetric buzz cut, she seems completely unflustered – sanguine, even. She’s thoughtful, watchful and careful not to give too much away – either about the show or herself. Direct questions are deflected with anecdotes or artistic admiration for others.
Collaborator in chief
Mortimer’s designs do something similar. They tell stories, but they’re rarely showy. Her stages steer clear of statements, preferring a supporting role to a star turn. It means Mortimer doesn’t have the profile of some of her peers – Es Devlin, say, or Bunny Christie – but she’s revered by the directors she counts as collaborators.
She’s a masterful naturalist with a knack for creating uncannily lifelike worlds on stage. “I’m very much a secondary artist,” she demurs. “I’m a collaborator first of all.”
That’s the secret to her NT prolificacy. Mortimer has made herself indispensable to a raft of directors there. She has helped Hytner stitch classics into concrete contemporary settings – 2007’s The Man of Mode in contemporary London or Othello in an Iraqi military base six years later – and she became one of Davies’ closest colleagues, sculpting vivid Irish settings for his epic staging of Sean O’Casey’s plays in the Olivier.
Emma Rice swears by the squiffy surrealism Mortimer brings to her work, most recently in the swirling psychedelia of Wise Children at the Old Vic. “Vicki reveals me to me,” Rice tells me. “She’s a great listener. She listens and she distils. She thinks very deeply, but she always surprises. There’s a mystery to Vicki – both as a person and as a designer.”
But one collaboration has always been key, foundational even. Mortimer’s association with Katie Mitchell stretches back 30 years and some 40-odd shows. They met as students at the University of Oxford: Mortimer knocked on a friend’s bedroom door only for Mitchell – “being really nosy, like she is” – to pop out of the next room.
“She was this very unusual, highly cultured person,” Mortimer recalls. “I’d never encountered someone like her before. I didn’t come from a theatregoing family. She was already incredibly literate about the iconic figures of theatre. When she started making student work, she was already on a mission, so I did a few things with her there.”
Text is the bit I really love, trying to understand what a play is driving at
It proved a strong slipstream to find herself in. Once Mortimer had graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art, the two reunited and started refining a practice that put close textual analysis right at its core – typical of two English-literature graduates. “Katie was stratospherically rigorous in so many ways, but we both had this willingness not to let things go,” Mortimer says. “Text is the bit I still really love, trying to understand what a play is driving at.”
They took it past text though, and theirs is a method rooted in research. For both, the detail is all. Just as Mitchell is famously fastidious with actors, building complex backstories and day-to-day routines, Mortimer is similarly attentive to space. She works out the history and material realities of a place. “I have a massive love of research. It’s the only way I can work visually. It’s all got to come from other source material.”
‘Responsibilities of representation’
Early on, in their 20s, the pair would travel to the location of every play they put on. Ibsen’s Ghosts took them to Norway; The Dybbuk, a Yiddish play they staged for the Royal Shakespeare Company, led them to rural Ukraine. “We went on this extraordinary search for this fictitious town where the play was set,” Mortimer chuckles.
It sounds silly, but the story is instructive. In Ukraine, Mitchell and Mortimer tried to seek out local Jewish populations, only to realise, belatedly, that those communities had been wiped out twice over – first in the pogroms, then by the Nazis.
“We were pointed up the lane to this cemetery, six football pitches big. The scale of this community – this culture – that had just been subtracted was really powerful. We met these incredible, fiery women who were making sure that the right names were on the right memorials. I’d never really understood the Jewish diaspora in that way before.”
It was a kind of artistic awakening – a realisation of the responsibilities of representation. Mitchell and Mortimer aren’t chasing rigour for rigour’s sake. Their research isn’t wonkish or over the top. It’s a way of representing the world as it is, honouring the realities of other people’s lives. For Mortimer, the moment “created a real hunger to be true to the culture”. The longer they’ve worked together, the stronger that impulse has grown.
“We’ve just matured together. It’s an amazing gift to have somebody that you work with over that length of time. Katie never stops looking at her process as a continuum. She’s not directing play-by-play. She keeps trying to work out what she’s interested in, so you’re never just dipping into a play. When I meet her for another project, I have to be really alert to what’s changed since last time.”
Vicki Mortimer’s three top tips for aspiring designers
• Be kind.
• Listen. (It’s all a conversation).
• Read the play.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other
The new show is a case in point, she says. It reunites them with the playwright Martin Crimp and links back to his wider body of work – specifically the two plays The City and The Country, which they staged for London’s Royal Court, and his libretto for Written on Skin, first staged at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012.
“What they all have in common is looking at how possible it is to have an ongoing relationship, particularly between a man and a woman – what that might look like if you try to make it an honest encounter.” She’s being cryptic. “It’s looking at the possibility of a functional marriage or long-term relationship.”
Crimp’s new play is elusive. “Ooh boy, it’s hard to talk about,” Mortimer laughs exasperatedly, ready to tiptoe around spoilers. When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is 12 scenes long; a very loose, free-form version of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, about a potentially exploitative affair between a teenage maidservant and her employer, Mr B.
Crimp’s update is more balanced, but blurrier. It’s rarely clear who’s exploiting who – if anyone. It was written “pre-Weinstein and all that”, but in the present climate, it’s undeniably potent. For Mortimer, it asks: “How is it possible to create a functioning morality around gender?”
It’s a slippery script for a designer: no stage directions, almost wilfully abstract. “There’s an absence of environment,” Mortimer says. “You want to get it off the page and you’ve just got the dialogue. I think, at the beginning, Martin was imagining two figures in a white space.”
She and Mitchell have gone in a different direction, sewing the encounter – these two lead characters – into a specific setting. “Literally, a concrete room,” Mortimer jokes, giving little away.
The aim is specificity, not generic dynamics and abstract ideas. “It’s amazing how responsive the material is to being set in a really functional, relatable environment.”
Q&A: Vicki Mortimer
What was your first non-theatre job?
Writing my best friend’s English homework. I got paid in cigarettes. That was in 1979. Those were the days.
What was your first professional theatre job?
While I was an undergraduate, I agreed to make two dancing skeleton costumes for the Oxford Playhouse Christmas show. Ever the optimist. I realised, too late, that I was completely out of my depth, and quietly left the materials at stage door with a note, knowing I’d really let them down. I was very embarrassed. Still squirming.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How to do my accounts. How to be braver. That one day I would have a collaborator in Paule Constable; I’d have been so happy to know that.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My colleagues: directors, writers, other designers, production managers, performers, engineers, draughtspeople, painters, stage managers, master carpenters… I could go on.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have done?
Missed the most amazing experiences. Kept a tidier desk. Been more timely with birthday cards and phone calls.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have a deep-rooted fear of routine and habit. This rules out ritual.
Delivering the detail
That’s the root of Mortimer’s design – creating a space for actors to fill, a space they can enter with conviction. The aim, always, is a sense of reality. As she puts it: “If you give an actor something that’s fake at the back, how do you expect them to deliver a convincing sense of being there?”
It’s why her rooms have a reality few designers can match. “When I was starting out, reaching for that level of detail, a lot of people would say: ‘We’re never going to see that from row B, why are you bothering?’ Those were the moments I had to gather my courage and insist. It’s really important. If it’s not there, the audience won’t know why they’re feeling something’s missing, but they’ll know something’s missing.”
Out of that, she says, design can make meaning. Mortimer is an architect’s daughter. Her father converted the Arnolfini in Bristol from an old tea factory into an art gallery. The family lived in a house he’d drawn up. It sparked a fascination with rooms – not just how they’re designed, but how they’re occupied. “They tell the stories of the people in them: who’s been there before and what’s happened here.”
Mortimer’s spaces tend to be full of traces: scuff marks, worn floorboards, rising damp up the walls. “Our material world expresses us,” she explains. “Our world is corporeal, we live inside our skin and our senses. That’s what we are. So I think materiality means a lot to me because it’s how you get to somebody through an object or through a space.”
Those design details sew a stage image into a reality. “I know I rely on that patina to establish the materiality of life in the room – that real things have happened in these spaces, bits of skin have been left behind.”
For lighting designer Paule Constable, one of Mortimer’s closest collaborators, it’s a gift. “Every surface, every text has a story behind it, so light can hit those surfaces and resonate.” Light is key, Mortimer reckons. It cements the truth of a space, giving a sense of a whole offstage world.
Follies – a reckoning amid the ruins
All of this fed into one of her most celebrated designs, Follies, which returns to the National next month. “What a gift,” Mortimer beams.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a show more suited to her style. Set in a dilapidated theatre, due for imminent demolition, Follies brings bricks and mortar to life. Stephen Sondheim’s elegiac musical brings a swansong of former showgirls back to the stage for a final send-off and finds the building swimming with memories, the walls full of ghosts.
Starting from Sondheim’s own starting point – “a famous photograph of Gloria Swanson stood in the ruins of a demolished theatre” – Mortimer went further than most. Instead of a tired old auditorium, jaded and run-down, she designed one that had fallen into outright disrepair. Black mould climbed the walls like scorch marks after a fire. Rafters were strewn over red velvet chairs. Brickwork had already been bulldozed through. Mortimer’s theatre was already half lost.
The effect was to raise the stakes no end. Director Dominic Cooke wanted to flip the play subtly – not the present recalling the past, but the past summoning the present. “The ghosts occupy the building. This is their last chance to call their present selves to account.” Instead of an act of remembrance, Follies became a reckoning.
Mortimer’s vast design exacerbated the distance between past and presence, as glittering showgirls glided by in the ruins, spectres shimmering with 600,000 Swarovski crystals. They looked like mirages. Each individual costume gave clues to the past – both to the wearer and to the era of their prime.
It was an extraordinary design that won Mortimer her second Olivier award, but its scale was almost unprecedented, more like opera than theatre. The team spent nine months exploring the piece. “If you start counting your hours, you’re lost,” she says.
It’s a mark of what our own theatre culture has lost. Instead of an in-house presence – expensive as that is – Mortimer is a freelance on a fixed fee. Yet, like the ghosts of Follies, she lives in this theatre and, as her caps and credits attest, she will leave her mark on it
CV: Vicki Mortimer
Born: 1964, Bristol
• Waves, National Theatre (2006)
• St Matthew Passion, Glyndebourne (2007)
• The Cat in the Hat, National Theatre (2009)
• Othello, National Theatre (2013)
• The Silver Tassie, National Theatre (2014)
• Follies, National Theatre (2017)
• Wise Children, Old Vic and touring (2018)
• Olivier, best costume design, Follies (2018)
• Olivier, best costume design, The Man of Mode (2008)
• Critics’ Circle award for best design, Follies (2018)
Agent: Mel Kenyon, Casarotto
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other runs at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until March 2