Diane Parkes talks to Birmingham Royal Ballet designer John Macfarlane.
Designer John Macfarlane is promising audiences plenty of magical moments with the new Birmingham Royal Ballet Christmas production Cinderella.
John, who has spent the best part of two years working on designs for the full length work, knows he has a tough act to follow as he also designed the company’s perennially popular Nutcracker.
Twenty years have passed since John injected his own brand of wonder into The Nutcracker which was created by former BRB director Sir Peter Wright as a gift to Birmingham to mark the move of the ballet company to the city.
Now Cinderella is being created to music by Prokofiev by current director David Bintley as a gift to the city to mark 20 years since the move.
John admits he is aware of a certain amount of expectation as The Nutcracker is greatly loved in Birmingham.
“In the early days of working on this production I was thinking that this needs to be every bit as good as The Nutcracker but the longer I have worked on it the more I have realised that it is a very different piece and will have its own special moments,” he says.
“From the outset we knew that we wanted it to be quite a dark version of the fairy tale. It certainly isn’t Disney. When you remember that the story is actually about the abuse of the young girl Cinderella. And then you have those scenes where the sisters are so desperate to fit into the magic slipper that they are cutting their toes off.
“Because of that you need to think very seriously about how you want to portray certain scenes. For example at the beginning when you are in the kitchen you want a level of realism so there is no point in having a kitchen which fills the entire stage. You need it to be on a realistic scale and you need to really get the impression of Cinderella as totally abused and downtrodden.”
But once the Fairy Godmother arrives on the scene, Cinderella’s fortunes begin to change. And John is aiming to ensure that those changes are show-stopping moments.
“In The Nutcracker everyone remembers the scene where the Christmas tree grows and the fire turns,” he says. “In Cinderella we could have gone for just one major pivotal point. But this is a full length classical ballet with a story which has plenty of opportunities for imagination.”
Not surprisingly John is keeping the details of those moments close to his chest.
“One of those pivotal points is when the Fairy Godmother appears,” he says. “And another is when the clock strikes midnight as that is when everything changes.”
John has been working closely with David Bintley but the origins of some of the designer’s ideas lie further back as he originally discussed a new Cinderella for Birmingham many years ago.
“Peter Wright talked to me about it and asked me to create four or five paintings to see how X, Y and Z would come together,” he recalls. “I did start listening to the music and I thought it was so lovely and I realised what a great story it is. But when we came to talk about it again Peter knew he was preparing to leave the company and didn’t feel he could take on something of that scale and stature.
“But since then I have always wanted to design for this story so I was really pleased when David decided to do it.”
But a full length ballet does have its challenges.
“Designing for classical ballet is much more difficult than some other genres especially when it is a big three act production,” says John.
“It is the sheer logistics. You have all these ideas but then they have to fit into the grid and the side of the stage.
“You have an idea and that is fine but then you realise that you can’t put it where you want to because you already have a piece of scenery there. It is very much like a sudoku puzzle. And that becomes all the more complicated when it is a production which also needs to tour so has to be adaptable for other theatres. You have the idea and have it all sorted in terms of weight and depth and then someone says ‘but will it work in Plymouth?’”
Even with John’s impressive CV he remains keen to continue working with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
“The Hippodrome is a beautiful theatre to premiere a work in,” he says. “And despite its size it still manages to create a smaller and more intimate situation for the audience than some of the other theatres. I always enjoy working with BRB and am very comfortable with the company. What I really enjoy is those last few days when all of the creative team come together and you have all this talent here working away as a team.
“If we were in London everyone would go home at the end of the day but because we are in Birmingham together it creates a special kind of atmosphere.”
* Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella, Nov 24 – Dec 12, tickets: 0844 338 5000 and www.birminghamhippodrome.com