Set for success: the art of making ‘playgrounds for the actors’
The worlds represented in the four nominations for best set in the ‘Irish Times’ Irish Theatre Awards are very different, but they all fit somewhere between pragmatism and poetry
The skull designed by sculptor Andrew Clancy for Pan Pan’s Embers
Lee Savage’s set for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate Theatre, Dublin
Owen MacCarthaigh’s set for Decadent Theatre Company’s A Skull in Connemara
Colm McNally’s set for Collapsing Horse’s Distance from the Event
A sweltering two-bedroom apartment in 1940s New Orleans. A grim cottage and a surreal graveyard in Connemara. A four-metre-high skull, sitting on a shingle beach, surrounded by a matrix of hanging speakers. An art gallery, constantly dismantled and reconfigured, in a city in the distant future.
The designers nominated for the creation of these spaces in this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards have covered an expanse of geography and time. But they also stretch through a universe of different styles, from the poetic realism needed to accommodate Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to the surreal twists that better realised Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara , or the sculptural design that brought audiences into the headspace of Samuel Beckett’s Embers to the clean and economic futurism of Collapsing Horse’s Distance from the Event .
On the surface, it’s difficult to find commonalities between these four designs, but their creativity within strict constraints, their harmony with actors, lights and costume, and their encapsulation of themes and tone, underscore a similar characteristic. Every designer is somewhere between pragmatist and poet.
ANDREW CLANCY (EMBERS)
‘The chance of winning one of your own awards would be pretty unusual’
The sculptor Andrew Clancy ought to know the value of an Irish Times Irish Theatre Award: he designed them and has made them each year since 1997. His work for Pan Pan’s Embers marks his first nomination. “It’s kind of strange,” he says. “The chance of possibly winning one of your own awards would be pretty unusual.”
His sculpture for Embers was a commission. “In reality, I would not have made a giant skull if I hadn’t been commissioned. It has no particular conceptual resonance for me.”
Clancy’s work for theatre has been a fascinating combination of expression and problem-solving. “Once someone gives me a problem like that I’m just completely absorbed in it and embrace it totally. At that point, all I’m concerned with is making it mine. It’s a slightly obsessive compulsion to create stuff.”
The skull for Embers was constructed in 200 ascending layers of plywood, each piece cut with a jigsaw and judged by Clancy’s eye. The skull was more interpretive than an anatomical facsimile (“You make choices with the shape of the eyes, the nose, to see what shadows are cast”), but it also had to accommodate two performers, who spoke Beckett’s radio play text from within it, and to be dismantled, transported, and reassembled by different technical crews on tour. Clancy still considered it a sculpture more than a set.
OWEN MACCARTHAIGH (A SKULL IN CONNEMARA )
‘They’re self-contained structures’
By the time Decadent Theatre Company’s production of A Skull in Connemara , (which takes its title from Beckett), had finished two national tours, it had smashed about 400 skulls to smithereens. The production’s designer, Owen MacCarthaigh, had at least given them an extraordinary (and not so final) resting place, where the tombstone solemnity of gravedigger Mick Dowd’s cottage opened – with the smack of four walls hitting the ground – on to the surreal landscape of a hilltop graveyard.