The stunning National Trust property Charlecote Park has been ingenuously recreated for the latest RSC production .
The celebrated theatre and costume designer Simon Higlett has come up with the idea for a giant 4.5 tonne sliding doll’s house for Christopher Luscombe’s double bill of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won at the RSC Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“I have known Chris a long time. He rang me last November on a Sunday morning and said he would like me to design not one but two Shakespeare plays for the RSC,” Simon says.
Simon was called up from his job as head of design at Chichester Festival Theatre to Stratford-upon-Avon for a meeting with Christopher.
He adds: “Chris knew the two plays would straddle the First World War because of this year’s centenary and knew it was going to be in a stately home. Both plays are set around a house in Sicily and Spain. Chris is very quick and in one meeting we knew we were going to play one scene on a roof inspired by Brideshead Revisited.
“Then Chris said: ‘why not make is local?’, especially with A Christmas Truce (the RSC’s Christmas show) being a local story. Two of the officers are from Warwickshire and use a Warwickshire accent.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in an idyllic world around 1912 when life was rather pleasant for the rich; whereas Love’s Labour’s Won is set in 1918 when life was not so pleasant.
“I started to read John Martin Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates.
“It is about what happened to our stately homes after the First World War, many were wiped out as so many officers were killed and there was no-one to inherit. We lost so many of our big houses.”
A shortlist of National Trust properties was drawn up but Simon says as soon as they came through the gates of Charlecote Park in Wellesbourne, they immediately felt it was right.
“Charlecote has a great big gatehouse, and so before we even entered the house we knew this would work. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the Princess of France and her three ladies-in-waiting are forced to camp a mile away from the house,” he says.
“We had a good look around and it was all dust sheeted as it was closed for the winter. The other great thing we thought was we’d set Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won) at Christmas, and make it cold, as it is usually set in the summer.
“We wondered around the library, dining room billiard room and we went on the roof. I took lots of colour photographs.
“After that I went home for two months and made a model.”
Dad-of-two Simon never draws his sets, but works totally in 3D.
“I make the scale-model box out of white cardboard,” he explains.
He broke the rules with his technically complex, spectacular set design.
“I invented a giant 4.5 tonne sliding doll’s house. It has three floors and underneath my indoor floor, there is an outdoor floor. It’s grass.
“It was quite an interesting challenge. It’s a tricky space. It is a thrust stage. I am used to the Chichester stage which is very similar but doesn’t have a proscenium. I decided to use the proscenium (the area of a theatre surrounding the stage opening) in order to create all the different rooms. On the theatre plan there is a sign which says: ‘do not go beyond this point’. But I did.”
Simon is delighted at how the creative and technical in-house teams at the RSC have brought his ambitious plans to life.
“Once I worked it out with my bits of card I said: ‘what do you think?’
“I have done everything I wanted to do. They have made it work and made it incredibly beautiful.
“I did one really good visit to Charlecote, but I know the paintshop and carpenters went again and took very detailed photos of mouldings. Anyone who knows it will say ‘that’s the library’.
“There is a lovely scene on the roof and the characters are all in pjs. It’s a treat.
“Charlecote being Tudor and with all Shakespeare connections was a gift really. It works really well. ”
Designing the set and costumes for these two Shakespeare comedies is Simon’s biggest job to date.
Opening a black sketch book, he reveals pages filled with beautiful drawings of Edwardian dresses and suits.
“I tend to draw in pencil. I tend to try and suggest a character for the actor. They are working sketches really,” he explains.
“In Love’s Labour’s Lost the fashion is Edwardian, but in Love’s Labour’s Won Beatrice wears a pair of trousers, which was scandalous at the time. The changes between 1914 and 1918 were really tiny, so I slightly forced the 1920s. I wanted to show generally what was happening to women: from driving buses to making munitions.
“In the first scene of Love’s Labour’s Won, Charlecote is turned into a hospital and the women are dressed as nurses in the library.”
Simon is assisted by two costume supervisors.
“We have made everything, even the uniforms and all the tailored suits . It has been one of the biggest things I have done.
“For Nicholas Nickleby Parts 1 & 2 we hired all the costumes. Here I am checking what colour the shoe laces should be and what kind of leather to use for belts. My assistants went to the (Royal Warwickshire) army museum in Warwick, we wanted it to be right.”
This year Simon has worked on Amadeus with Rupert Everett, Stevie with Zoe Wanamaker at Chichester, and Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury and Derren Brown’s Infamous tour, both in the West End.
Simon, who has two daughters, Charlotte aged 20, and 17-year-old Emily, adds: “I’m a typical embarrassing dad but when I did Derren Brown, that was ok.
“I’m very bad at archiving my work. This year I did Amadeus with Rupert Everett, and worked out it was my 41st show at Chichester. He was great as Salieri and a really lovely individual. We had a really big hit and hope it will have another life.”
These days Simon is busy designing theatre and operas all over the world. He says: “I am about to do The Tempest in Singapore and before Christmas I am off to LA to do Blythe Spirit with Angela Lansbury. It is the same production we did at London, and she wanted to do it in her home town.”
But Simon very nearly became a dentist.
That was until an art teacher at Woodlands School, Coventry, asked if he would like to design the school play – The Pirates of Penzance.
He says: “I did Pirates of Penzance and it changed my life. I’ve never had any regrets.”
At 17 Simon gained work experience at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
“I helped backstage and met the designer Terry Parsons who I still know today. I completely decided: ‘that’s what I want to do’.”
He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art – a year younger than anyone else – and went on to do an MA in theatre design at the UK’s top art and design college, Slade School of Fine Art in London.
There he was taught by the great ballet and opera designer Nicholas Georgiadis and his personal tutor was the late film director, designer, artist, gardener and author Derek Jarman. “He was utterly charming and drank tea constantly,” says Simon.
At the time I was 20. Looking back, I think of all the days I didn’t go in.
“He kept the most beautiful notebooks of his works in progress, and I’ve tried to do the same.”
* Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won will play in repertoire in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until March 14, 2015. There will be live cinema screenings of Love’s Labour’s Lost on February 11, 2015 and Love’s Labour’s Won on March 4, 2015. To book tickets call 0844 800 1110 or go to: www.rsc.org.uk