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Where to begin with designing Macbeth

30th November 2022 by Simon Wainwright

A conversation with Simon about designing Macbeth

What is the usual starting point for designing an imitating the dog show?

Most productions I’ve worked on outside imitating the dog have a very clear order of creation. They start with a dramatic concept or story which is then developed into words on paper (a script) and then, relatively late in the process it seems, a design is thought up to fit around the text and present these ideas in their most communicable form. It’s tried and tested and used year in, year out in theatres across the world. We tend to work differently to that. We tend to light all the fuses at once at the start of the process and then watch them all burn towards a final conclusive point of “fixing” the show, often about 3 hours before the first performance! 

The design ideas (incorporating set, video, sound, even poster design) all feed into and shape the story we’re telling just as much as the words and lines of the script. There’s never a question of “Which design would best tell this story?”. It’s always a question of interrogating design concepts which are negotiating the same ideas as the text.

So, what is the process like in terms of getting the job done?

Pete, Andrew and I usually spend a long time talking around the main concepts of the piece. The story. The politics. The heart of it. Looking for a route in to the meat of it and talking about what interests us about it. We’re quite selfish in that way…it has to interest us…but we can be interested by almost anything once we find a route in to it. At the same time we often have some technological and aesthetic concerns that are kicking around. Often an idea left over from a previous show, or a very simple proposal and we test how this can meld with the themes of the piece. 

So for example when we made Nocturnes we knew we were dealing with a piece where truth wasn’t absolute. At the same time we were also interested in an actor re-syncing their live voice to a pre-recorded film. The theme worked perfectly with the technology and design – both elements asking questions around authenticity and truth. Most shows we make have this dual approach, a struggle to blend the design with the theme.

How does Macbeth differ from recent shows in the approach being taken?

It’s very similar. It’s a challenge approaching something which is as well known as Shakespeare when it feels like every avenue has been explored. The main proposal from the off with our version was that the piece was about the two Macbeths and every other character is only there to serve their story. We used this as a starting point for how cameras might portray our protagonists: always in close up, always on film. We talked a lot about the film Zidane where the footballer Zinedine Zidane is show in close up for the whole of a full length football match. We decided on a similar approach – the scrutiny of the camera’s gaze would only be on the Macbeths. 

At the same time we were interested in the role of the witches. Their manipulation of the action and events and their very deliberate placing of the Macbeths at the centre of everything. I’d been itching to make a show which seemed to solidify in and out of our very basic technological tools of setting up a show for theatre…which for me are the line-up projection grid and an audio click track. The idea that the witches and the performers would conjure this world and show out of nothing seemed to work perfectly with this modern day Brechtian concept of the stage world coagulating out of its basic set up.

We also wanted this design to be as lean as possible in its consumption of materials and energy. We wanted it to be green, to be recycled where possible. We’ve literally laid out the elements we have from other shows which seemed to serve our needs and made them in to a set design. A floor from Night of the Living Dead, walls from Cinema Inferno, screens from Heart of Darkness. It’s a breath of fresh air to put the pieces back together rather than in a skip.

What are the main tools and tasks for the job?

There are two initial processes which occur for me as a designer in making an ITD show which inform the way the show will feel. The first is the making of a publicity image. I make the publicity images for the company as well as taking the lead on the show design. For me it’s all part of one process, of working out what the show is, of getting some basic images and colours in Photoshop and looking at them to see what the show feels like. How does this stage world look in two dimensions on a wall?

The second is my first tentative toe-dip into making a piece of video content in After Effects. I’ll often make a “set piece” for a part of the script and present it to Pete and Andrew in a mock up of what the stage might look like. In the same way that a few pages of script can define the whole show (and often does in our case) then a single snippet of video where we all say, “yes, that’s it, that’s the mood we’re going for” can shape the whole process. 

Here’s the initial video treatment for Heart of Darkness which started the ball rolling….

It’s then a case of taking all the ideas and snippets into a room and making them all work together as a live show. There’s no short cut for us. We have to have all the elements (lights, sound, video, set, props) and all the people who make them work from day one. It’s not efficient and it’s not popular in this country but it’s the only way we know how to make this multi-layered work that we call our own.

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