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Obituary: Paul Brown

Paul Brown in 2009. Photo: Dietmar Mathis Designer Paul Brown, 57. Photo: Dietmar Mathis

Paul Brown was widely regarded as one of the most imaginative stage designers of the last four decades. He was certainly one of the most prolific, his work – in theatre, musicals, opera and ballet – seen throughout the UK, Europe and America and as far afield as Australia and Japan.

Meticulous and methodical in his approach, he managed to be simultaneously a creative artist and a consummate craftsman, his designs illuminating both the context of the production in hand and the inner life of its characters with one beautifully considered insight after another.

His 1991 Royal Opera House debut, Mozart’s Mitridate, Re Di Ponto, was seen again in Covent Garden earlier this year when his ornately contrived collision between the baroque and Oriental looked as fresh and vital as it did more than a quarter of a century ago.

There was a touch of baroque extravagance in much that Brown did. As when the faded mosaic floor of an Italian Renaissance courtyard spilled over the Birmingham Repertory Theatre stage and across the front rows of the auditorium for Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women in 1989. Or when he flooded the stage of the Almeida Theatre for The Tempest (2000), collapsed a richly panelled office to expose it to the elements in King Lear at the Almeida (2002) and ignited a staircase in Debussy’s Pelleas Et Melisande at Glyndebourne Festival Opera (2004).

Born in Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan to a master-printer father, he began his theatre career in student drama while reading English literature at the University of St Andrews. On graduating, he was tutored in stage design by Margaret Harris at London’s Riverside Studios.

Quickly finding work on the fringe, he began to make his mark in the 1980s at the Royal Court Theatre – where successes included Jim Cartwright’s Road (1986) and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (1987) – and the Bush Theatre with Lucy Gannon’s Raping the Gold (1988).

For the Actors Touring Company he designed Antony and Cleopatra in 1989 and Ravi Shankar’s dance-drama Ghanashyam, directed by Graham Vick, for Birmingham Touring Opera the following year.

He collaborated with Vick on several occasions, notably at Covent Garden in a series of striking operas including Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1995), Verdi’s Falstaff (2001), with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage (2005).

He forged a long-lasting partnership with director Jonathan Kent, creating costumes for Euripides’ Medea, starring Diana Rigg, at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1993, with which he made his debut on Broadway the following year.

He returned to the Great White Way in 2002 with set and costumes for Kent’s revival of
Man of La Mancha, having previously accommodated the derelict Gainsborough Studios within a set of crumbling walls and grass hummocks for the director’s Coriolanus and Richard II in 2000.

Perhaps his boldest design was the onstage lake that filled the Almeida stage for The
Tempest. All three productions won him a Critics’ Circle award and entry into The Stage 100 list of influential theatre figures in 2001.

The same year he ventured into ballet for the first time to provide set and costumes for La Scala, Milan’s Giselle, featuring Sylvie Guillem, and seen at the Royal Opera House. In 2002, he received a second Critics’ Circle award and an Evening Standard gong for The Tempest and Anton Chekhov’s Platonov at the Almeida.

Again with Kent, at the National Theatre in 2004, he created a tarnished silver-mirrored chateau for Martin Crimp’s reworking of Pierre Marivaux’s The False Servant, and a contrastingly bleak setting for Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at Covent Garden in 2005.

Both were members of the newly formed Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, which launched with William Wycherley’s The Country Wife in 2007, when he designed Kent’s ravishingly sepulchral revival of Verdi’s Tosca for the Royal Opera.

On the floating, lake-side stage of the Bregenzer Festival in Austria he produced a spectacular, neon-bright amalgam of ancient and modern for Vick’s elaborate staging with dancing construction cranes and patrolling gunboats of Verdi’s Aida in 2009.

More recently, Brown designed touring productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera in the UK (2012).

With Chichester Festival Theatre, he created an evocative autumnal setting – complete with a tree shedding its leaves – for Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (2010) and received a WhatsOnStage award nomination for his costumes for the recent revival of Half a Sixpence, which spent nine months at the Noel Coward Theatre earlier this year.

Nominated for an Oscar for his 1995 Angels and Insects costumes, he received the Royal Designer for Industry award in 2013, in recognition of his profile, and the International Opera award for best designer in 2014.

Paul Gareth Brown was born on May 13, 1960. Diagnosed with cancer in late 2015, he died on November 23, aged 57. He is survived by his civil partner, the artist Andy Cordy.

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