Guest Blog: Designer Rosanna Vize On THE AUDIENCE
When Sam [Hodges] first approached me about designing The Audience, he did so with a bartering tool. He pointed out that this play has already been done, it's been done to huge success with huge budgets in huge theatres and with actual corgis, it's been done in the most proper way it could be... We, therefore, have the chance and freedom to be a bit more playful and maybe a bit more irreverent. Great.
Whenever I approach a new design, the things that draw me in are never the setting, never the period or the decoration. I'm interested in something closer to feeling. I aim to find the heart of a piece (or the person) and then slowly discover how to put that in a theatre.
This attitude is a little complicated when the piece I'm dealing with is essentially the sum of famous settings, iconic period outfits and symbolic decorations.
The queen, to most of us, is nothing more than that. She's a symbol. One that is heavily recorded on stamps, commemorative plates, mugs, countless photoshoots, exhibitions, the change in your pocket (you get the picture).
Sounds daunting, doesn't it? If that visual archive is daunting to me, the designer...imagine being the woman herself.
This felt like a useful way in. I quickly realised that I wanted to create a space that simultaneously acknowledged the huge weight of that public history, but that also peeled back a humanity in the queen. To reveal the woman behind the symbol.
Sam and I began to pour over images of museums. Spaces such as the V&A and the Tower of London have an intimidating elegance. They're dark and highly polished. Titans of royalty and power loom above the everyman in every room.
A particular detail that drew my attention was the display of clothing in these spaces. We (the public) are so used to seeing dresses of former queens displayed in glass cases, laid over lifeless mannequins... it's actually really odd. Clothes are so personal, they are the smell, sweat and movement of a person. This felt like a useful key to the "personal"/"human" version of the queen.
We decided we wanted to show both these unnatural, lifeless mannequins adorned with the more iconic, impractical outfits of former queens, whilst also taking time to dress and undress Elizabeth. This felt particularly successful when moving between a simple 1960s secretary dress for an audience with a Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth's full coronation gown: ermin and all. We saw Elizabeth go from a living, breathing person to another mannequin herself, the weight of history draped on her shoulders.
With these discoveries, it felt like we'd solved some of what The Audience requires. However, this play isn't just focusing on the Queen. Specifically, we're interacting with her, and the numerous Prime ministers she's worked alongside.
A few quotes from the text led us to another design decision: "ELIZABETH: I suppose that's what happens if you stick round long enough. The same people, the same ideas come round again and again. Wearing a different coloured tie."
And "ELIZABETH: That's one version of it. A kinder one, perhaps, would be that you're allowing complicated people, over-complicated people to measure themselves against something unchanging. Permanent. Simple."
The Audience regularly refers to this idea of the ever-changing, fleeting nature of the Prime Minister. We therefore became interested in including something more kinetic within the space.
An early conversation with Sam featured the word "revolve"; could we literally see the Prime Ministers "come round again and again" whilst the Queen remains stoic within her museum? Well, yes, was the simple answer.
However, a revolve didn't seem quite right. It didn't give the impression of someone old leaving and someone new taking their place. We needed something that felt closer to the machine of our political system, something a little more cutthroat.
This lead us onto discussing a travelator - a conveyor belt of Prime Ministers being shipped in and out of the space. The opportunity to work with this item also allowed us to play heavily with movement and slapstick comedy. We have one actor playing all male prime ministers; the travelator gave him space for huge, varied entrances and exits that defined the character of each man he was playing.
The Audience is now open and I think the playful risks we've taken have paid off. It's been a joy to see the actors interact with these ideas and the design be bought to life by a brilliant team of creatives.
Photo credit: The Other Richard