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Tom Piper

Tom Piper - Designing for Plays and Actors, Not Himself

Steve Orme speaks to the RSC's associate designer Tom Piper.

Finding a mutually convenient time when Tom Piper and I could talk about his newly created role as associate designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company proved almost as difficult as filling a West End theatre with paying customers for a year.

As well as designing both the set and costumes for Hamlet and the set for King Lear for the main stage at Stratford, 39-year-old Piper is also looking after four plays in the New Work Festival taking place in Shakespeare's home town later this year. And he's just returned from a design conference in Los Angeles where one of the topics under discussion was how to formulate an interactive computer game involving the Bard.

When we finally get to speak, Tom enthuses about Hamlet, the first play directed by Michael Boyd since he became artistic director of the RSC just over a year ago. The pair of them have worked together for more than ten years - which has its disadvantages as well as its good points.

Tom's design for Hamlet has evolved through rehearsals in the same way that all Michael Boyd's plays change from the original concept.

"The way Michael works is that you can't come up with a neat plot of who's going to be playing what and exactly what they're going to look like from the word go. He likes to discover that kind of thing as he goes along. So the nature of people's madness, like how Ophelia goes mad, how Hamlet goes mad, what Hamlet looks like when he comes back from England - all of those are ongoing and developing and have changed quite radically since we began."

So how much of the look of Hamlet is down to Piper and how much does Boyd put into it? "It's a fairly shared vision," says Piper. "First of all we talk about the play, the themes, what it's about - it's not a case of Michael saying 'I think it should look like this' or 'I think it should be set in this period', it comes out of a debate.

"Our initial thoughts about it were it's got to be a world in which you can believe in the idea of purgatory and the idea of a ghost in purgatory, believe in the fact that Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius when he has the opportunity because he thinks he will send Claudius to heaven. It has to be a world that makes sense from that point of view."

Boyd described his first encounter with the play as reading a DC comic book in which the story is set in a dangerous world: "Michael was very keen on the idea of it being very political and very exciting - a kind of thriller, how difficult it is in a court world to actually kill a king," says Piper.

"It's not a very easy thing to do, and therefore we've ended up going for a stylised Jacobean world because essentially you've got the religious context that works, you've got the possibility of a lot of rather sumptuous, decadent court grandeur with Claudius taking power. He also has a troupe of bodyguards and a whole political set-up with Polonius as a kind of rather nasty spymaster who's actually controlling this place completely.

"It's a rigid sort of environment where even to unbutton your shirt is a kind of madness. What we're trying to do is create a world in which the rules are so rigid and the hierarchy so strong that it actually drives people mad. You notice that the young people either go mad, pretend to go mad or want to leave. People like Laertes get out as fast as they can."

The actual design of the set is fairly basic, a circular stage with a curved back wall. Piper adds: "A lot of the work that Michael and I have done on the stage is to try to contain and control that space, to create a smaller focus space where you bring the actor as far forward as you can and into the same room as the audience. So it will be a very minimal production - I think there are only four chairs in it, no bed and one curtain maybe. The most important thing with Shakespeare is to celebrate the words of the actor. Most of the time Shakespeare tells you where you are through the words."

Piper and Boyd have worked together since collaborating on two pantos at the Tron, Glasgow. When Boyd went to Stratford ten years ago, Piper followed and has designed most of Boyd's RSC productions.

Piper explains their philosophy: "Nothing is precious so anything can be changed at any time. In past productions we've changed major things during the technical (rehearsal) and during the previews when you find out whether or not it's working with an audience. The advantage of working with Michael over a long time is that I don't have any anxiety about that happening. I don't feel that my work is being criticised.

"If Michael decides that we need to change something as we go along, I see that as part of the process, so it's never me delivering a kind of finished design and going 'right, this is it, take it or leave it, if you don't like it I'm going to go off in a huff', it's much more what's actually working for the play."

Piper had designs on being a biologist but had two major slices of good fortune which shaped his career. His old friend from school Sam Mendes was directing a play and Piper offered to build the set. From then on that was all he wanted to do. And after seeing Peter Brook's production of The Mahabharat in Glasgow, he contacted the designer Chloe Obolensky, showed her his portfolio - and was invited to join Brook's company in Paris.

When he returned to England he won the London Fringe Best Design Award for Cat in the Ghetto at the Tabard Theatre, Chiswick, a feat he repeated three years later for The Rock Station at the Soho Theatre.

Since then he has done many Shakespeare productions, culminating in Twelfth Night last year at Dundee Rep which earned him a Scottish Critics' Circle award.

He says he has two favourite Bard plays which he designed: "One was A Midsummer Night's Dream with Michael in 1999. I love that because it began with a completely cold and frozen world and ended with the whole thing exploding into riotous colour with balloons flying everywhere. The set was just a simple, light-coloured wood oval with a wall - not dissimilar to what we're doing for Hamlet.

"The other really good one was Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III which were part of the history cycle. That was in the Swan and we were able to reconfigure it, put walkways into the auditorium and have lots of aerial work and rope artists.

"You could watch 16 hours of theatre in an evening and a day. That was fantastic just to be part of a big theatre event when you genuinely did give up your life to the theatre for that length of time. It was very interesting to be able to work with the same group of actors for quite a long time and create the design around them rather than having to create it beforehand and impose it on them."

Even though he works for a prestigious, multi-million pound company, Piper has to watch how much he spends: "In real terms our budgets are at the lowest level they've ever been. It does force you into a fairly simple, puritanical approach to scenery, for example.

"In terms of clothes, there are over 80 costumes in Hamlet. We do recycle stuff from store, it's not like we go out and make the show from scratch. I'm lucky that I've done enough things here in the past that I can almost recycle. I've done Jacobean-esque style productions before, so I've got a pool of stuff that I can use. But I tend to regard the lack of money sometimes as quite a creative force."

In his new post, Piper gives advice on all aspects of design. "My aim is for the RSC to be an environment in which the most exciting experimental work takes place in all our theatres, so I work on the basic design of all our performance spaces."

He also discusses with the RSC's graphics department all the company's images in print and online; is trying to set up an apprentice designer scheme; teaches at design schools throughout the country; and is developing an artist-in-residence scheme.

"One of the things that I do at the RSC is to broaden us out and try to get involved with other art forms. For instance, I'm trying to get artists to come and do work around our rehearsals and we've been talking with short film-makers about making experimental films. We just want to try to make the RSC open and in a dialogue with as many art forms as possible."

If there's one man who really appreciates Piper's work, it's Michael Boyd. He pays this tribute to his designer: "Tom has a very distinctive style and strong taste as well as deep insight and the capacity to influence the way the rehearsal room sees a scene or play. He designs for plays and for actors, not for himself."

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©Peter Lathan 2004