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David Benedict: Awards should bring in experts to illuminate the judges’ decisions

Jessica Hung Han Yun's lighting for Equus is nominated for a Knight of Illumination award. Photo: The Other Richard
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Anyone lucky enough to have seen Ian Rickson’s magnetic recent production of Duncan Macmillan’s version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s will remember purse-lipped housekeeper Lucy Briers brandishing house-keys like a Scandi-noir version of Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers as she doubted the glowing, ever-growing zeal of Hayley Atwell’s fiery Rebecca West.

And if you missed it, let me tell you about Giles Terera’s gleamingly sanctimonious Kroll piously manipulating Tom Burke’s compromised and increasingly fraught Rosmer; or the fighting talk of Jake Fairbrother’s stern, politically radical Mortensgaard or Peter Wight’s dismayingly hollow, self-defeated Brendel. If there’s any justice – a sceptic writes – the production will sweep the awards’ boards.

Yet a seventh, entirely crucial character underscoring the entire show went unnamed, even in the cast list: the role of the production’s representation of the physical world outside Rosmer’s home that was vividly played by the lighting design of Neil Austin.

Rosmersholm review at Duke of York’s Theatre, London – ‘Hayley Atwell is superb’

Working in startling harmony with set and costume designer Rae Smith, Austin’s lighting didn’t just beautifully convey the household’s time frame and moods, he showed audiences the metaphorical temperature of the world outside the walls via, for example, the memorably intense burning and dying of hope-filled sunlight. Critically, he also conveyed how central that unseen world was to the action and the characters. The rigorously cold flatness of light winningly conjured the lure of the doom-laden mill race that had already claimed the life of Rosmer’s wife – and was destined to take more.

The remarkable strength of this year’s nominees for the Knight of Illumination Awards, released last week, can be judged by the fact that Austin’s lighting of Rosmersholm didn’t make it to the list. Instead the award for the lighting of plays will be battled out by Jessica Hung Han Yun for English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Equus (running at Trafalgar Studios until September 7), Aideen Malone’s Death of a Salesman (transferring to the Piccadilly from October 24), and Tom Visser’s Europe at the Donmar Warehouse.

Lighting designer Durham Marenghi and his wife Jennie conceived the awards in 2007 in partnership with the Italian lighting manufacturer Clay Paky, which has been the event’s lead sponsor ever since. Administered by the Association of Lighting Designers and the Society of Television and Lighting Design, the awards cover the UK lighting of everything from arena concert tours, events (Patrick Woodruffe won for his lighting of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony) to TV and theatre.

Full disclosure: I have chaired the KOI theatre panel since its conception, overseeing judging panels not just for plays, but also awards for dance, musicals and opera plus an additional award for video/projection design. And, hand on heart, it genuinely remains one of the most satisfying events of my theatrical year.

Unlike the Oliviers, producers have neither input into nor control of nominations or the final decisions. Nor are choices made on the basis of celebrity – yes, Evening Standard Theatre Awards, I’m looking at you.

It doesn’t matter whether a production is still running or played one night only. Scale and experience are unimportant. Amy Mae, not long out of training, memorably won the 2015 musicals award for her thrilling lighting of Sweeney Todd in Tooting’s tiny, 32-seat Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, a design using barely more than a handful of lanterns.

Sweeney Todd

The judging is undertaken by teams of critics, changing every two years. Indeed, the KOI’s successful hidden agenda has been to lure a succession of critics into looking at, thinking about and then writing more regularly about lighting.

The critics are specialists in each art form who consider every new show they see across the reviewing year. And since none of them is a theatre practitioner – and therefore have limited knowledge of design technicalities – a lighting specialist is on hand every year to clarify the thinking.

Frankly, since few judges on any awards have technical expertise, it’s something other organisations might consider. While I, more than most, support the idea of awards for, say, best orchestration, I’m not convinced that many are qualified to judge such specifically detailed categories.

That lack of specialist knowledge on judging panels or, in the case of the Oliviers, any discussion whatsoever, is why, in many instances, awards go – depressingly – not to the ‘best’ in a category but to the ‘most’. In lighting, that translates as: throw colour or literally flashy special effects at something and you’ll usually win. Or, as they say on Broadway: “No haze, no Tony.”

Company and Death of a Salesman lighting designers nominated for Knight of Illumination Awards 2019


Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at http://thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

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