Theatre Critic and Journalist

Fine-tuned Designs: Lizzie Clachan

Fine-tuned Designs: Lizzie Clachan

Published in The Stage, 24.01.2013

Pity Lizzie Clachan’s kids. Not for them day trips to Chessington World of Adventures or London Zoo. Instead, they get – wait for it – Stockport bus station.

It’s a long way from Disney World. Simon Stephens’s Port, the National Theatre revival of which is the reason behind the Clachan family’s northwards trek, paints Stockport as a vacuum of a town, stagnant and callous; a place where dreams unravel before they come true. However, with an increasingly hectic schedule – she has four shows in the next six months – the designer’s research trips double as family outings.

“It’s very easy to sit at home and design everything from the internet,” she explains, “but if you want to see what something’s really like, you’ve got to go and see it. I always try to do field trips, take photographs and just be somewhere.”

That felt particularly important with Port, which is as much a portrait of the town as its protagonist, Rachel Keats. “It has to be Stockport,” says Clachan, “Simon and [director] Marianne Elliott both grew up there, so they know it very well. It couldn’t be Croydon [where she grew up herself]. It is absolutely Stockport.”

Pinpoint precision of place is one of Clachan’s great strengths as a designer. Each of her three sets in Wastwater – the first of three Stephens plays she has designed – felt almost high-definition in its hyper-naturalism. Details popped. Atmosphere – claustrophobic, hollow, sickening – coursed through the auditorium. Location was all. Little wonder that she’s been enlisted for the Young Vic’s A Season in the Congo and Longing, set in a Russian dacha, at the Hampstead later this year.

At the same time, her work can have a strong conceptual streak. For The Trial of Ubu, part of an ongoing collaboration with Katie Mitchell, she provided three framed portals onto the story. Her set for April de Angelis’s Jumpy was a glistening white domicile, abstract and featureless.

Yet Clachan only came to theatre relatively late. Despite playing a go-go dancer in one of Stephens’s early play at the Edinburgh Fringe (“It was the first time I’d done anything theatrical. His girlfriend Polly, then my flatmate, now his wife, designed it.”), she stuck to fine art not theatre as a student. “When you’re at art college, theatre is a no-no. Art and theatre don’t mix.”

It was only after designing a community project as a favour to friend that she saw the link between her own installation work and theatre: “I liked working with people and time-based elements.” That led her to a postgraduate course at Central, from which, with nine peers, she co-founded Shunt.

Their expansive, absurdist off-site shows explain the audacity in her more conventional work. Clachan’s Shunt designs have involved underground rooftops, three-tiered mechanical structures with built-in birds-eye views and, most recently in The Architects, a vast plywood labyrinth and a cruise ship cabaret hall.

“The work I do with Shunt, I’m more of an artist, because I’m originating material,” she says. “In most mainstream projects, at the Hampstead or the Royal Court, I’m responding. There’s a lot of artistry in what I do, but I’m not the lead artist. I’m trying to support another artist’s idea.”

Not that that stops her natural inventiveness. She was among the first designers to reshape the Royal Court Upstairs in Ramin Gray’s 2004 production of Ladybird. “Coming from that site-responsive background, I’m the sort of person who wants to come in and reconfigure the auditorium. I’m looking for something, spatially, that surprises me. If I can lose my bearings in a space I’ve been in many times, that excites me.”

Directors have become increasingly open to such suggestions, she says, as the two worlds – experimental and mainstream – have entwined over the past decade. ”There’s a much more open dialogue between these different ways of working.”

However, that stops at the point of flexibility in design, to Clachan’s occasional frustration. Shunt shows might keep shifting throughout a run, but the design remains as fixed as in any in-house show. Other scenic elements – lighting and sound – are “light on their feet, but I can’t just change things. Sometimes design feels very leaden.”

As a result, it requires a certain amount of faith. “At some point, I realise that I’ve got no idea whether it’s actually going to work in real scale in the space, so I’ve just got to cross my fingers and hope,” she concedes.

However, that’s not necessarily the case with those designs that win critical acclaim. “Clever things get awards. Fantastically realised naturalistic designs get awards. Often the things that make the most radical, interesting theatre don’t. They’re not visually arresting or beautiful in the right way. It’s the seduction of the model box and, of course, that’s got nothing to do with whether something will work as a piece of theatre. If you don’t accept that, you’re not going to be a very good designer.”

Photograph: Stephen Cumminsky

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