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To Egypt, with love: Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre | Stage


Antony and Cleopatra is full of contrasts, chiefly between Rome and Egypt. Was your starting point establishing those two settings?
Not immediately. The director, Simon Godwin, who asked me to design, wanted the production to start with the ending. I couldn’t get my head around it for a while. It made things very difficult: if you start with this monument, right in front of audiences, you then need to get rid of it before you can begin the play proper. I loved the idea after we had talked about it enough. But that was the task to concentrate on before anything else.

Then I got started on Egypt. I had some fabulous books of contemporary photographs of Egypt that Simon loved. There was dappled light, gold, the desert, areas that gave respite from the heat, shadows, back streets, seeing through from one space to another. They were very inspiring. For Egypt, water, colour and heat were important to the designs. For Rome, I thought of marble and architecture; an incredibly ordered, quite cold and considered, very designed world. That contrast was a good starting point.





Hildegard Bechtler’s Roman set.



‘Cold and considered’ … Hildegard Bechtler’s Roman set. Photograph: Johan Persson

What is it like to design for the Olivier, the National’s biggest stage?
I’ve done nearly 20 shows in the Lyttelton, quite a few in the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman), but had only done the Olivier once before. That was Trevor Nunn’s Merchant of Venice, which was in the Cottesloe and then moved into the Olivier for a year. It’s kind of a responsibility doing Antony and Cleopatra in the Olivier. There are so many other productions of the play that most critics would bring up to compare. It’s a certain pressure. But we had a long run-in time, which meant we didn’t feel pressurised to come up with things.

In the Olivier you look right up to the lighting rig. One of the things I felt strongly about is that I didn’t want to see that. I grappled with how to do it but we managed to fix it. I also wanted to use the space right to the back of the storage area so that was cleared. The Olivier’s drum revolve is something you want to use if the play is right. I don’t really like using a revolve to bring round the next set-up, but we managed to populate the space very fast so you were always anticipating the next scene before you properly got it. The one time we went down into the belly of the Olivier was for when the ship comes out like the fin of a shark.

How precarious was it for the actors navigating the walkways around Cleopatra’s water feature?
We had to make sure it wasn’t slippery! The worry was that it would stop the freedom of the actors’ movement. But what it meant was that actors were driven to the front of the stage naturally – there was a reason for them to be close up in a fairly intimate space. On this vast stage there are many scenes of just two or three people, and you need them to be in the front area.





‘For Egypt, water, colour and heat were important to the designs.’



‘For Egypt, water, colour and heat were important to the designs.’ Photograph: Johan Persson

The palettes of the set and the costumes (by Evie Gurney) really complement each other. How do those two design departments work together?
I normally do costumes as well. But in other European countries people don’t do both roles – they seem very different disciplines. When I do work with a costume designer, we can talk without being guarded – you can be honest and creative with each other. I can’t stop myself from putting cutout scale figures in the model boxes I make. Theatre always has people – you’re looking at human beings on stage so the costumes are inseparable from the design. On Antony and Cleopatra, I had made figures for the model boxes, which were photographed and put on the walls in the rehearsal rooms. The costume designer was then able to look at those designs and use that as an example of what she wanted to do or not. We didn’t in the end spend that much time together, it was such a big production. She was sensitive to what the design had laid down – the colour tones were there. There are a lot of uniforms in the play but her freedom was in Cleopatra, which she did very beautifully.

Was there one particular theatre design you saw as an audience member that set you on this career path?
When I was at Central St Martins doing stage design, I went to Germany to see some shows as part of the course. I saw the most amazing work in Berlin and was completely sure I’d made the right decision. One of those was Mary Stuart, which all those years later I told Rob Icke I really wanted to do, and he made that happen.

I came from painting. I was at Camberwell art school and said I was going to apply to Central for stage design, and everyone was up in arms: “Why would you do that?!” In design, I’m closer to being a painter – I don’t start with a complete concept and draw it up on the computer and let someone else do the model. I work into the model box myself. I sort of know what I’m going towards – but I need a lot of time. There’s nothing more wonderful than exploring completely new territory. I’ve been lucky to work in very big spaces. Then it’s great to go back to the Almeida, for example, as it’s such a challenge. If Antony and Cleopatra was being done at the Royal Court, you’d think differently from the start.

Antony and Cleopatra streams on YouTube from 7pm on 7 May as part of National Theatre at Home. Available until 14 May.

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