Autobiobraphy 2. The Royal Court 1

Chapter 2. The Royal Court Theatre.

In 1966 I was given a job at The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. It’s strange how doors present themselves. I had just finished a year as the Arts’ Council trainee at Lincoln Rep. That last sentence needs explaining, as there are no longer any such thing as Arts’ Council trainees, and hardly any repertory theatres any more. When I left Birmingham College of Art it was suggested that I try for the Arts’ Council scheme. It was quite brilliant in it’s simplicity, and must have cost peanuts. You did some sort of exam, designing the set and costumes for a set project, I think mine was Don Giovanni, handed it in, went to an interview in St James’ Place if you were short-listed, and if successful were offered a job in some theatre around Britain. It could have been anywhere, but because of the comparative strength of my costume work, I got the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. The fledgling designer was paid 2/3rds of the minimum salary, £12 a week, I seem to remember, the theatre in question found the remaining third. So 12 designers got their crucial 1st professional job as assistant house designer for a year, and the theatre got a very cheap designer. Brilliant – the first round of Thatcher’s cuts put paid to all that.

Lincoln was a fortnightly rep which went out on tour to Rotherham and somewhere else that I can no longer remember, (Scunthorpe?) so in effect there was a new production to prepare every week. I only did one show as assistant designer, the Christmas Panto, which was Aladdin, otherwise I did show for show with the head of design, Jonathan Porter, (I hope that’s right). It was very good training as you had to improvise and work very quickly, no spending all morning on a single costume design, but exhausting with at least every other Saturday was an ”all-nighter“ in order to light on Sunday, do the technical rehearsal on Monday, a dress run on Monday evening, and open on Tuesday. My year was cut short because after 2 nights without sleep I tripped over a stage-brace that someone had left out next to an open trap door over a spiral staircase which lead to the under-stage area.

When my broken finger had healed and my memory recovered from the days of ‘retrograde amnesia’ I left Lincoln to try my luck in London. It was suggested that I should begin my assault on the capital by going to see the great designer, Percy Harris. Percy, christened Margaret, was one of the 3 remarkable women who made up the iconic design team of the 1940s and 50s called “Motley”. Percy was the only one still living, and concerned herself greatly with encouraging the younger generation of stage and costume designers. Her 1st question to me was “are you strong?” I couldn’t think quite what she meant, or why it was important. It wasn’t physical strength that she meant, though robustness of constitution was certainly part of it. But I did find out in the years that followed that a certain quality of steel in the backbone was crucial in order to survive in the perilous waters of the business.

It was typical of her graceful generosity that she took the time to see me, especially as I had got the date wrong. Her main piece of career advice was that I should find a director a year or two in advance of myself, and hopefully move up through the ranks with him. She knew just the person, she said, it was Peter Gill, then starting out as a director at the Royal Court.

At about the same time (and I can’t quite remember how this came about) I found myself making a set model for the other great designer of the decade, Jocelyn Herbert. I was so impressed by everything about her. She lived in austere splendour in an artist’s studio off Flood Street in Chelsea. Tiled floors, photos of the Carmargue on the walls, Monteverdi on the record player, and the wonderful, impractical Alvis Grey Lady car that she drove, I had never seen or heard anything like it. The opera she was working on was Gluck’s or possibly Monteverdi’s, Orpheo, and although I was never an expert model maker, I seemed to do alright.

Jocelyn was the widow of George Devine who had been the director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and she decided in her rather grand way that I should have the costume supervisor job as she didn’t like the incumbent at the time. She proceeded to tell Bill Gaskell, the director, that he had to see me. So it came to pass, that in the space of a week, I was interviewed by both Peter Gill to design a D. H. Lawrence play “A Collier’s Friday Night”, and by Bill, to take over the wardrobe. I was 24. Looking back on it I have absolutely no idea how I survived Except that somehow I fitted in, and was not overwhelmed by this odd, brilliant group. I must have had the bravery that sometimes goes with ignorance and inexperience, and for the first time in my life felt completely at home.

I was a hopeless costume supervisor, as I don’t have a tidy mind, nor am I in the least bit good at, or interested in maintenance and filing, my desk in the cubby-hole of an office overlooking the yard and the bus depot at the back of the theatre was always covered in drawings rather than any sort of supervisory matter. Luckily this part of the job didn’t last very long as I was asked to design an increasingly demanding selection of productions. In those days I usually did the set as well, so set boxes and bits of ½” to the foot model bits and pieces added to the clutter.

I have been trying to work out what the defining characteristics of the Royal Court ‘style’ actually were. It was certainly a pared-down rigorous aesthetic much influenced by the work of the mighty Berliner Ensemble as directed by Bertold Brecht, seen through the English eyes of Jocelyn Herbert. One important Brechtian idea was that every thing you saw on stage had to be true to itself. There was no artifice. In other words if you had as a back-drop a painting of a landscape no-one believed for a moment that they were actually out of doors, they were merely responding to the paint and the canvas and the idea of a landscape. Therefore wood was never covered in paint to imitate wood, because what you saw was paint, but it would be scraped and waxed to enhance its natural woodiness.

This hyper naturalism was combined with the simplest of scenic suggestions to create an evocative sense of place. Quite often the set was a gauze box of some kind with carefully chosen furniture. This style was certainly a reaction against the fussy 1950’s drawing-room comedy style prevalent in the West End, but was also necessary, as not only were budgets extremely tight, but that the stage itself was tiny. There simply wasn’t room for clutter. The costumes therefore, became very dominant in the space. And it was years before I felt comfortable using bright colours! The auditorium was painted Jocelyn Herbert brown, a shade somewhere between dark mouse and sepia, and over much colour on stage was thought to be a little vulgar.