Great works, grand designs


‘It’s an almost secret profession – at least if I’m doing my job properly you shouldn’t be able to see the joins,’ says award-winning set designer Bob Crowley

THE LAST TIME Irish theatre audiences saw a design by Bob Crowley was with The Year of Magical Thinkingat the Gaiety during last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Directed by David Hare, produced by Padraig Cusack and starring Vanessa Redgrave, this National Theatre presentation of Joan Didion’s play was typical – if anything from Crowley’s versatile portfolio could be called typical – of his inclination towards reduction.

A colleague describes this as “evocative minimalism”, a quality of austerity which Crowley still managed to warm with a lining of tapestries, almost tactile in their resonance. The contradictions implied by this approach, less underpinned by more, if you look for it, are characteristic of Crowley’s career, for to find this light touch in a scenic designer also acclaimed for the tiered and magically elastic and detailed setting of Mary Poppinsis a rare attribute, even in a recipient of the Royal Designer for Industry Award.

Although he has a flair for the edgy, terse detail, Crowley belongs to what he calls a classical, narrative-based discipline in which the designer performs a relatively hidden role: “It’s an almost secret profession – at least, if I’m doing my job properly you shouldn’t be able to see the joins.” In a profession which is rarely critically dissected Crowley has won plaudits from, for example, the Sunday Times: “As visually resplendent a piece of theatre as you will see all year.” Not much hidden about any of that or about the 12 Tony Award nominations he has garnered from his work in America during a working life of international scope and recognition.

Meeting him at his home in London (comfortable but yes, lightly minimalist) I remember one of the most impressive pieces of staging I ever witnessed. The occasion was his own father’s funeral in Cork and profoundly personal. As the procession left the church it was led by Crowley’s small nephew who carried the brass fireman’s helmet, potent as a hauberk, the insignia of Liam Crowley’s profession. Now in London I have to ask if that poignant simplicity was an achieved effect or was it a custom of the fire service?

“Yes, it was a tradition, I saw it done at funerals of his colleagues. It’s simple, yes, but it’s tremendous symbolism of a dangerous profession, one in which people can be killed. Dad always smelled of smoke, and my uncle Colm, who was also in the fire service, was killed in a training accident so there was a sense of associated danger: our house, Columbine on the Douglas Road, was named after him. We were always told that Uncle Colm was in heaven, and for years when I was growing up my notion of heaven was of a man sitting under a tree in a black-and-white photograph.”

GROWING UP THE eldest of Liam and Mary Crowley’s four children Bob Crowley also acknowledges that another influence was the Catholic religion: “I’ve always said that was the best grounding for anyone who wants to work in theatre – smells and bells, all that ritual!” There were other things to be learned: his father was a skilled joiner and furniture restorer in his spare time, some of which was spent helping Bob build the sets he had begun to design for the then Everyman Theatre at the then CCYMS Hall.

At Coláiste Chríost Rí in Turner’s Cross he was influenced by teacher John O’Shea, one of the founders of Everyman Theatre, by co-founder Dan Donovan and by the actor Michael McCarthy. Thinking he would “do a bit of acting” himself he took on the role of the young Stephen Dedalus in Stephen D and then, called on to provide a set for An Béal Bocht when the original designer was injured, he discovered his vocation.

There was little to guide him; the late Patrick Murray was the only professional theatre designer in Cork, in fact the only theatre professional at all in the city. Yet when Crowley decided to take the degree course at the Crawford School of Art and Design there was no friction at home that the son of a fireman was going to study Fine Art – “not an easy thing to pull off in Cork in those days, but my parents were very open-minded”.

Crowley’s scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was assisted by Everyman and its supporters. He left on the Innisfallen, the ship synonymous in Cork with emigration, but “when I got to Bristol I suddenly felt I was in the right place at the right time, I just knew it”. It is some satisfaction to him now that along with past pupils such as Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Miranda Richardson and Jeremy Irons, he is one of a group of fundraisers enabling the reopening of the Bristol Old Vic, which is recovering from five years of grant deprivation.

From Bristol he went immediately to the Royal Exchange in Manchester to work on The Duchess of Malfi, which later moved to London. After that came a 10-year engagement at the Royal Shakespeare Company, working with Adrian Noble, a fellow-trainee at Bristol. Following that decade of classics he thought he wouldn’t mind working with a living writer for a change, but remembering the colour and the clamour of Crowley’s design for an RSC Henry VI wonder how he could have left all that opportunity for imaginative opulence behind.

“It’s not so much to do with ambition. Really for me it’s to do with not repeating myself. I had done that epic Plantagenet series with the RSC, nine hours of performance and four or five hundred costumes. After that I was so drained and exhausted I was afraid I might fall out of love with historical drama.”

So then came a series of what he calls State of the Nation plays, plays about politics, institutions and contemporary issues. Might that have been a bit different to working, for example, on The Wars of the Roses? “No,” he says thoughtfully, “not really . . . ” As living writers go, Alan Bennett, Christopher Hampton, Harold Pinter, Tony Harrison and David Hare might seem intimidating.

“They are formidable intellects but I have found them nothing other than approachable and appreciative, and I can honestly say that several have become my friends. I wouldn’t have liked to get on the wrong side of Harold Pinter, mind you, but I never did!” Others he didn’t get on the wrong side of range from Paul Simon and Derek Walcott ( The Capeman, 1998) to Tom Stoppard, on whose trilogy The Coast of Utopiahe worked with Scott Pask and for which he won one of his five Tony awards.

He worked with Stoppard again earlier this year in a revival of Every Good Boy Deserves Favourat the National. His work on sets and costumes has almost ritually taken him from London to New York (and also to Paris, Munich and Oslo), beginning with Les Liaisons Dangereusesfor the RSC in 1987 and continuing with productions as diverse as Carouseland Racing Demon, or The History Boysand The Iceman Cometh, not to mention the forthcoming Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera directed by Jack O’Brien, who also directed The Coast of Utopia. There is opera ( Aidafor Disney won another Tony) and ballet, work as co-director with Stephen Rea on The Cure at Troyfor Field Day, television and a costumes film credit for The Cruciblewith Daniel Day-Lewis.

WITH A CATALOGUE in which the phrase “among others” is inevitable, just as his collaboration with director Richard Eyre is among others, his career has spanned over 35 years, even though he is still young in terms of the Robert LB Tobin Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design award he received in New York in March. While his brother John is a director who moves between film (most recently Is Anybody There?with Michael Caine) and theatre (Tony-nominated for Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which went from the National Theatre to Broadway), Crowley has no great desire to do more work in film. “That doesn’t mean I won’t, but I’m not pursuing it.”

He smiles at the irony that his next design will be seen in cinemas throughout Britain, enjoying as well the coincidence that Helen Mirren, star with Sorcha Cusack and Bob Hoskins of his debut with The Duchess of Malfiall those years ago, is the heroine of Phèdre. Filtered from Seneca through Racine to this version by Ted Hughes, in language which Crowley describes as extraordinarily lucid and immediate, three performances of the production are to be filmed in high definition for live satellite transmission to 50 digitally-equipped cinemas in the UK and to 100 others around the world, including Dublin.

“This was the director Nick Hytner’s idea, and the cast were up for it. It won’t be the same as being in the theatre but it’s another way of making theatre widely available – the National goes nationwide! I haven’t changed anything about my design, and although something of the kind in terms of recording has been done elsewhere, in the Met, for example, and at Covent Garden, we won’t know if it works because there’s nothing to compare it to, until we do it.” He believes the experiment is further evidence of the resilience of theatre although, on this occasion, he will probably go to a cinema himself to see how it all turns out.

Phèdreruns at the NT Lyttelton until Aug 27. It tours to Epidaurus, Greece, and to Washington DC. Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and the Irish Film Institute present Phèdre, live via satellite from the UK’s National Theatre at the IFI, Dublin, on June 25.