With opening night just around the corner, set designer Chris Reddington sat down to talk about the world he and his team have built for Titus Andronicus, the challenges involved in designing a set and how he found inspiration for the show in a car-park.
Why is this production exciting to work on?
Shakespeare is very rich ground to pick through. While Titus is considered to be an earlier and possibly cruder text from the Bard, I still found many beautiful relationships and reflections within it in my own reading and discussion. Piecing the many smaller moments of discovery within the bigger picture of the Titus story is a bit like putting together a puzzle. Unearthing and making sense of the many mysteries and interpretations of its particular world is both fascinating and exciting.
What does a set designer’s role entail?
I like to think of the world set in the same way we might set the table for dinner. The set is the setting of the story we are telling. My role is to synthesise the various formal elements into a language and cohesion that can give the story a sense of flight on behalf of the audience, who will make their own discoveries within that story.
My role is not necessarily to come up with the ideas but to find and collate the best ideas. I would never consistently come up with the best ideas on my own, so I ask everyone in the broader team what they like, what excites them, what they notice, love and feel within the context of the work and story we are telling. One never can tell who will say something that provides a little click moment.
Many click moments will build into a kind of momentum that eventually renders one more of a servant to the work. After a while the work will tell us what it wants and the designer’s role is to listen very carefully to these suggestive moments within the story. The arrangement of which allows audiences access not the just to the story, but to the characters, their motivations and the transformations that they undergo.
What is your concept and inspiration for the set?
To find the fundamental story and give the language of Shakespeare ample room to express itself. The Titus text is very rich and the set avoids being literal with the multitude of imagery in the language. In this story there is a basic conflict between the Romans and the Goths. There is a breakdown in the political order of Rome but also in the internal order of Titus, in both his patriotism to his country loyalty to his family.
On deeper reflection there are other conflicts and dichotomies: between order and chaos, a man and a woman, reason and intuition, consciousness and sub-consciousness, right side of the brain and the left side, clarity and distortion, Dionysian and Apollonian energies.
The set does little more than frame the formal outlines of these ranges by entering the spirit of these antithesis in its creation: there are hard, carefully considered structures and reflective surfaces, and painterly textures dripped with joyous abandon.
In the middle of it all is an ever-present pit that finds new meanings as the language progresses: a womb, a tomb, a void, death, madness, amorality, hell, a mouth, an orifice, and of course a pie. The ideal concept for the set is that it changes its basic meaning as the dramatic nuances of the story unfold.
The Titus set is really very basic and only attempts to provide visual parameters for the dramatic dynamics of the story. In the broadest sense there is a relationship between the social structures of the Roman Empire placed next to the chaotic nature of the Northern Goths. In the set you can see various examples of geometric structure in comparison with organic chaotic order. There are reflective surfaces and light absorbing surfaces, front-lit figure lighting, but also back-lit silhouette lighting, as well as an archway that soars upwards and a pit that pulls downwards into the sense of shadow beneath the story.
Fundamentally, the set is a very large and broad painting that provides an unequivocal sense of transformation of these forces and energies. The painting was generated in the spirit of these forces; there is masking and structural edges, but also random drippings of paint that land where they will, providing a fertile atmosphere to stimulate the themes, images and ideas within the play. This painting is also developed around the fundamental relationship of figure and field. There is a horizon and also vertical stripes that give it a series of landscape and portrait relationships.
The backdrop is also very empty in a way. The emptiness is what provides the energy for the cast to place themselves in. I like to think of the cast as set pieces, too. They are an important part of the arrangements of each scene.
Even though Titus is set in Rome it is not actually a history tale. This gives a certain licence to how the themes found within it can be perceived in the contemporary sense.
What’s the most challenging part of designing a set?
Listening to and observing the story. Once I feel like have found the place to position myself, in order to move forwards and greet the text, then I think the creative process is straightforward so long as close attention is paid to the discoveries of that process. Making sure the broader team of people have their say in the work is important too. If one can get themselves in this particular creative position, the work flows more or less of its own accord and one will eventually access the layers beneath the surface of it all. Getting the right stance in the project environment early on is for me the most important and challenging part of the process. From this place, the basic language of the design will slowly and steadily reveal itself.
A lot has happened before the play starts. How does that impact your choice as a designer?
In terms of the plot, Titus has returned from years of war, victorious on behalf of Rome, but he has suffered the deep personal losses of his own sons. The protagonist is in a situation of fundamental tension from the beginning. The antagonist Tamora loses a son as an act of political atonement early on in act one. This sets of a plot of revenge between the two. Within the patriotic pride of Titus is an image of Rome that is a powerful and victorious empire, but also an empire that went on to implode from its excesses.
Titus captures this spirit before the story starts, and to this end, the stories of Shakespeare were written as a point of comparison to the English Empire. The Titus story told here today still has connotations that are apparent with today’s world. The Trump administration of back stabbing and chaotic political order comes to mind.
How does the design choices support the concept of order descending into chaos?
Through the course of the play, this transformation is framed in many basic but suggestive ways. From the outset, the stage space has a stark fleshy red banner on one side and a winterly tree skeleton on the other. The floor painting also has a series of geometric squares that slowly morph into earthy ground tones that have no sense of order or shape; more the messy joy of a child’s painting without stringency or mental intention.
Five small boxes which are used variously in the production begin as orderly placements on the stage edge to punctuate cast entrances, but then get moved and shuffled into seating and stepping platforms. By the final act they start to be placed on angles and get moved until by the end they lay scattered by the drama that ensues.
The set is very formal for act 1 and is broken down and combined for act 2. These are some of the ways that this basic relationship of order and chaos works in the setting of Titus.
Have you made any symbolic choices with the design?
Almost every part of the final design has reached its resolution because it fits as a symbolic presence. In Titus the curved backdrop could symbolise the earth itself, the mirrors could symbolise the reflective nature of the motivations of the main characters, the tree might symbolise the earthy ideology of the Goths and the archway civilisation. The colour red could more obviously symbolise blood, but also the blood lines of family, Tamora's lust and Titus’ shame and embarrassment. The five platforms might symbolise the five-act structure of the story. But symbols don't need to be mentalised but rather felt intuitively.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Anywhere and everywhere. The trick is to just be ready when it comes. Inspiration mostly comes at a time that is unexpected, and these are usually the most seductive and fantastical ideas. For example, the sense of painterly transformation of the backdrop came while looking at a road stripe on a judder bar in the car park that was wearing thin at one end from many car tyres passing over it over time. That feeling, of noticing and observing that random and spontaneous entropy on the road paint, is the feeling I have tried to set in the painterly quality of the backdrop.
How closely do you work with the director to develop the set vision for the show?
Ideally as close as possible. Ideas will constantly change and shift as the various aspects of production find their inter-relationships. I think staying in close contact with the director is the best way to allow the best ideas to voice themselves and find synthesis. This includes costuming, blocking, sound, lighting and props.
How long does the design process take?
Projects are often about two months, and for me I essentially design right through to the end. The best ideas come late, and that’s as it should be, because the various interactions that personnel have with them is what gives them life, rather than a concrete set of ideas that people must abide by. The softer ideas take time to relinquish in any creative work.
Do you get involved in the build phase of the set?
Yes. In the end there is a kind of fingerprint in the final set, or a heart-beat. It also contains the energies of the workshop team, and being closely involved with these fine people is the best way to attain the right feelings of focus, tactility and expression in the final offering. The build process is collaborative and magical. It’s where we get close to the picture we are making. The set should feel intimate and humane; it should be something to explore and relate to. The execution of it is where the conceptual aspects of the work become visceral and experiential.
We don’t have a curtain, what do you want the audience to be thinking or feeling before the show starts?
A sense of mystery. A sense that there are familiar qualities to what can be seen and heard. But also, many little points of comparison that feel less literal or definite about what people may suppose they will see, and more of a sense of wanting to know more; of wanting to find room for themselves to make their own interpretations of the story. In the end, an audience of 500 will have 500 different perspectives of the story. I think my job is to help make sure there are at least 501 different perspectives available, but, of course, hopefully many more. In this respect I think keeping the setting of the story on a kind of liminal edge is the best way to incite imagination within the basic theatre-going experience. If this feeling of curiosity and wonder is there from the start of the production, I think that this is the best chance to stimulate an audience during the production.
What would be your dream set design job?
Anything with a rich story. At the end of it all, we are just story tellers working together. If I’m able to find treasure in the story, then I know where to push, and then all will work itself out as long as the right creative steps are taken towards resolving the tensions within that story. It does not have to be a large-scale production, but rather a rich, humane story. In this respect, Shakespeare is a kind of dream job.