Theatre Critic and Journalist

The Light Princess: Paule Constable

The Light Princess: Paule Constable

Published in The Stage, 4.12.2014

“Nobody knows how to talk about lighting design.” Paule Constable sure knows how to put a tech-illiterate critic at ease. She also knows how to talk about lighting design. Beautifully. Rivetingly. Accessibly. “What’s important to me is storytelling,” she breezes on. “It’s just that ultimately my response to the world is with light.”

Even if you don’t know Constable’s name, chances are you’ll know her work. She’s been a National Theatre associate artist for years, lights almost everything that Michael Grandage, Marianne Elliot and Rufus Norris direct, and has collaborated long-term with Katie Mitchell, Matthew Bourne and Simon McBurney. War Horse was hers, ditto Curious Incident… and His Dark Materials, and she’s won as many Olivier awards as Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett combined. (Four – plus a Tony.)

True, that’s partly down to the limited pool of lighting designers working at the top end of British theatre –many of whom do around 20 productions a year (and rates mean they need to) – but Constable is undoubtedly among the very best of them. Mitchell calls her “a really remarkable artist.” Grandage says she’s got “a phenomenal gift.” And yet still, she meets with bafflement.

“It’s a great conversation stopper,” Constable says with a smile. “When people ask what you do and you say lighting designer, they either expect you to design light bulbs or fittings – or they think you climb a ladder for a living.”

There’s nothing like interviewing a lighting designer to sharpen your awareness of light. Sat in the foyer of the National Theatre Shed, Constable is framed by the fuzzy daylight flooding in through the perspex behind her. A window to her left adds texture to her facial features. The shadows make her seem wise and a little weathered, where, lit differently, she looks fresh for 47 and genial. She’s slender and, you sense, out-doorsy. Everything about her is practical: her dark brown hair is pulled back, she carries a lightweight rucksack and arrives dressed entirely in black, though whether ready for tech or fresh from running I’m not sure.

She’s “a manic runner,” apparently; thinking through and imagining her designs on the move. Until the last minute, lighting designs exist “in your head,” she says; “99% of what we do happens in the theatre itself,” during the final fortnight of rehearsals. She’s likens the rhythm to an airport holding pattern: a lot of circling, then swooping in quickly to get the job done. “It’s not until the last minute that you actually get to look at anything. [Your design] might be completely wrong, but you won’t know until you’re in the space.”

Unlike most LDs, however, Constable spends a lot of time in rehearsals; three weeks for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s non-fiction novel about the slums of Mumbai, which opened at the National last month. Where others wait to see what needs lighting, before working out how to do so, Constable tends to design in tandem, often writing long-hand descriptions about the effects she might want to achieve.

Her preferred style is quite particular. Grandage tells me that when he first hired her, “she was very puritan in her tastes – her style was simple, not fussy, no frills.” She’d pare back her palette to the very minimum, often lighting scenes as naturalistically as possible. “She was a quaker lighting designer,” Grandage goes on. “For many directors – me included – this seemed like a thrilling new way to light a space. For some (perhaps – dareIsay – trapped in the past) it was too ‘real’ and at times too dark.”

The approach came from Constable’s work with Mitchell, early on in both their careers. “What we were both interested in was a kind of honesty, a truth,” Constable explains. That meant “as much as possible, taking an image back to the actual thing. So if a room’s lit by a sidelight, put that light on and see what you need. If the light’s from a window, just start with that.”

The aim, then, is to heighten that effect, to intensify a given tone. “Think about a light through a window” she continues. “You don’t just settle for one light. You make it really thick, beautiful, brilliant, brutal, bright light – like daylight coming into a really dark space.”

What you get, as a result, is something incredibly textured and pictorial. Mitchell adores her style. “When I look at her lighting design, I immediately think of artists like Caravaggio or Vermeer. Either consciously or unconsciously, she’s really like a painter.” And yet, by lighting from within a scene – avoiding blasting the stage from the front – she creates a real sense of depth and reality. “Paule’s someone who really understands the stage space as a three-dimensional object,” says Mitchell.

Constable laughs when I recount Mitchell’s description: “I’m really bad at making it up. I love real things; real tangible objects which you heighten and transform.”

Doing so requires absolute precision: another skill that sets Constable apart. Grandage remembers her work on The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse: “One could walk into the theatre at any given moment and easily guess what time of day it was (probably the month too) by the natural palette she had created.” The same goes for her work on Behind the Beautiful Forevers: on the vast Olivier stage (“the hardest space in the world,” she says), you get a really tangible sense of the subcontinental sun – hazy, heavy and baking – or the still calm of moonlight.

Research is key. “I spend a lot of time collecting images. I’m always deconstructing things I see, thinking about how I might put them onstage.” She launches into a sample thought process, breaking down the light sources in the Shed foyer one by one: “flat light here, non-directional,” “no particular shadow,” “diffuse daylight.” Her assessment is instinctive and incisive; she speaks with the sort of easy expertise that lets you appreciate a subject you know nothing about. I look around and everything fits her description.

Constable’s father was a military man, meaning the family followed him wherever he was stationed. As such, she was sent to “a very snooty English public school,” Stamford in Cambridgeshire. It was a frustrating place, she says. Despite academic aptitude, she grew bored there, and her attention turned (as teenage attentions tend to turn) to “boys and drugs.”

“I completely fell off the rails, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. I was following a very middle class path that was supposed to make everything alright, but risk wasn’t part of my life and I needed it to be.”

That’s why she plumped for Goldsmiths College afterwards, drawn to its English department by the “brilliant left-wing thinkers” on staff. This was Goldsmiths’ heyday, when it was churning out Young British Artists by the bucketload: Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood amongst (many) others. Constable “walked through the front door and it just felt amazing: so far away from my school and everything else. It felt like London. I could be anonymous.” She recently attended a Goldsmiths open day with her daughter, who was put off by the same hectic eclecticism she’d found so attractive. “It’s so funny. For me, it was just the place to be.”

Intrigued by the idea of directing, probably for television, Constable “sort of discovered lighting by accident.” She was sharing a flat with a stage manager, who, one summer, took off to Spain with her boyfriend on a whim. Constable was signing on at the time – this being the late eighties – so when a call came in offering her flatmate a follow-spot job at the Hackney Empire, Constable turned up in her stead and “just sort of learnt on the go.” (Her advice to emerging designers, incidentally, is not to specialize too early. Learn about life, then learn to light it.)

She was, she says, one of the only women. “The level of sexism was quite overt,” and working in the music industry, where she started out, it “was so much worse than anything you ever met in theatre.” Gradually, she drifted towards the experimental end of theatre, working with companies like the People Show, Lumiere and Son, and 7:84 in Scotland. “Being female actually got you noticed in that sort of world, where it wouldn’t have done elsewhere.”

The gender imbalance is still pronounced. So much so that only four women have ever been nominated for the field’s Olivier award. “You’re not the only one anymore,” says Constable,” but it’s not changed radically.” Why so, I ask? “There’s absolutely a deep-rooted and, I think, unacknowledged sense of what we believe women should do and what we believe men should do – pictorially as much as anything else.” In other words, we can’t imagine women up ladders with spanners. “The more people see people like me doing technical jobs, the more it becomes normal – and that’s what we all want isn’t it? We just want it normal.”

At 7:84, assisting Ben Ormerod, she met the designer Rae Smith, who remains a close collaborator a quarter century later. “The thing that’s difficult is trying to find a community,” Constable explains. “I clung onto designers I met who were my age, because they had a voice and I was trying to find one.” Smith introduced her to Complicite, initially as a production manager, but when the company did Street of Crocodiles at the National, she begged to light it and, aged 25, received her first Olivier nomination as a result. “Suddenly, people start taking you seriously.”

Her time with Complicite still defines her practice. It’s why she spends so much time in the rehearsal room (“being in the middle meant better informed decisions”) and it’s why she sees lighting as a form of storytelling in its own right – no less than any other discipline, be it writing, directing or acting. Hers is an integrated approach, refusing to tack lighting on as an afterthought. It motors a play, she says. “You’re the engine room, aren’t you?”

To illustrate the point, she talks me through another thought process. Lighting’s role is rhythmic and atmospheric, she explains. “How do you draw something to a close and start something else? Is it a long, slow moment or are you chopping from one thing to another, throwing the audience’s attention across the stage? All that’s about telling a story.”

Furthermore, lighting can directly impact upon the action. Constable thinks back to lighting Ivanov for Mitchell at the NT. (She also did Grandage’s West End production with Kenneth Branagh.) “I remember talking about where he [Ivanov] might have sat in the room…The sun’s streaming in through a window, he’s sitting to read, so sit somewhere with the best natural light you can find.” You have to be careful though: bring lighting into a rehearsal room too early and actors will naturally turn on a performance. Chekhov’s good for lighting designers: Uncle Vanya, she says, is “a descent into darkness, ending with Sonya lighting candles as Vanya tips into despair; his scenes often take place at dawn or at dusk, “particularly charged times of day” when time becomes tangible as the light shifts.

How, I wonder, does she cope without such specificity, in showier shows like War Horse or Curious Incident, set in imaginary spaces? “With those shows,” she explains, “we gave ourselves clear rules for what light was doing within that space.” Once the rules are set, and light makes sense, “it’s no different to a window in a room – it’s just that the possibilities are endless.”

Grandage thinks that seam of work has changed Constable’s approach in recent years, opened her up to a fresh registers. “I noticed a rather wonderful shift towards colour,” he says of their last collaboration, specifically his hippyish Midsummer Night’s Dream in the West End. “It something that neither of us would have done when we first met.”

“That’s the other joy of long-term collaborations,” he says. “You grow old together and your tastes change together, sometimes in different ways. Paule is someone I want to grow old with. She makes me laugh and she’s fun to be around, but when it comes to the seriousness of art an believing in the importance of what we do, she’s a great partner to have at your side.”

Now that is how you talk about a lighting designer…

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