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Exclusive: Olivier nominated set designs

Published 30 March 2016

Ahead of this Sunday’s Olivier Awards with MasterCard, we asked Hildegard Bechtler, Es Devlin, Jonathan Fensom and Anna Fleischle to share the inspiration behind their four very different sets, each of which have earned them a place in this year’s Best Set Design category.

Take a look at the gallery above for photos of their stunning model box designs and read on for a fascinating insight into the minds of four of theatre’s most prolific designers.

Hildegard Bechtler, Oresteia

Finding a world through which the quartet of plays in Robert Icke’s version of Oresteia could move seamlessly was the major challenge of the design. The urgent flow between the settings would help focus the action and maintain the incredible tension of the separate dramas. No time could be wasted on lengthy changes.

As so often happens, the answer came down to distillation, when we finally committed to a very pure and simple concept expressed in brick, steel, sliding glass and concrete: real materials, not artifice.

The Almeida’s great asset is its charismatic curving architecture. This gives a site-specific sense of timelessness. The sliding glass walls could be transformed electronically to form a solid barrier or with the use of lighting, create depth and mystery.

The possibilities of sudden reveals and concealments allowed the action to travel through the architecture of the set in an almost filmic way.

Es Devlin, Hamlet

This was my second attempt at Hamlet. One thing I learned from the first was: start with the ghost and the grave. Lyndsey Turner and I conceived a palace of infantilising scale, constructed over a mass grave. The ghost brings the grave into the play. The pressure of the grave builds throughout the piece until the doors can hold it off no longer and it invades the entire space. The final two acts are played out in a palace consumed by earth.

Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli And The King

Moving Farinelli And The King from the intimate 320-seat Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to the 19th Century 800-seat Duke of York’s Theatre without losing any of the immediacy and sense of involvement with the stage was always going to be the biggest challenge. We set about achieving this by bringing the stage forward of the proscenium arch, seating audience on the stage on two levels and by building scenic elements in front of the side boxes of the theatre to give the illusion that there was natural transition from Jacobean theatre into the auditorium of the Victorian theatre. We wanted to create a “lean into” space, rather than a “sit back and watch” one, in order that the audience were visible and a big part of the stage picture.

To finish this transition we draped all the balcony and gallery fronts with blood red baroque drapes, hiding the gold and cream of the Victorian theatre. All the scenic choices made were done so using 17th century theatre techniques and technology in mind. Hand painted clothes on linen, cut clothes backed on net, rope “hemp” flying by hand and candlelit footlights and candelabras were all part of our stage story to create the sense of being in a London theatre 350 years ago.

Anna Fleischle, Hangmen

From the first read it was clear to me that Hangmen required a naturalistic setting, real spaces in which real people live and breathe. At the same time however, I wanted to keep a metaphorical and theatrical language running through it. The shifting between the three spaces needed to be unexpected and sudden, reflecting the condemned man’s realisation that his place of execution had been seconds away from where he had been sleeping for weeks.

The prison cell of the first scene – heavy walled and claustrophobic – rises to reveal an Oldham pub but remains dangling over the rest of the play, never letting us forget the irreversible reality of taking someone’s life.

When we move into the cafe at the top of the second half it is revealed above the pub somehow entangled in the structure of these people’s lives, but equally removed enough to create a space for secret plotting.

The winners of the Olivier Awards 2016 with MasterCard will be announced in a ceremony at the Royal Opera House on 3 April. You can be part of celebration at our Covent Garden Piazza event that will feature live performances and a live stream of the ceremony. You can also watch extended highlights of the show on ITV at 22:15.

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