The Rivals: A note from the Designer

Designer Tom Rogers discusses the development process for his beautiful design for The Rivals, our co-production with Bristol Old Vic and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. Directed by our very own Artistic Director Dominic Hill, this 18th-century comedy of manners arrives at the Citizens Theatre in November.

When Dominic approached me to design his production of The Rivals it was immediately an exciting prospect. I knew he would bring something fresh and dynamic to this classic text whilst still retaining its heart and timeless appeal.

The Rivals arrives at Citizens Theatre 2 Nov 2016 -
The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic image by Mark Doucet
Neither of us wanted to dispose of its setting in 1775. It’s very much a play about the social manners of its time, and the late 18th century is a glorious period of indulgence and frivolity to explore visually, particularly in fashion. But we also were keen to explore other design options rather than slavishly re-creating 18th-century Bath and early Georgian interiors.

The play includes many settings and the challenge was to come up with a design that could move swiftly between these, giving enough of a sense of each place but in a mostly non-naturalistic way. The play, with its many asides and broad comedy lends itself to a heightened theatrical approach and this led quite naturally to a design that relies heavily on ‘traditional’ theatre practices such as footlights, perspective portals and painted cloths.

Painted cloths have fallen out of fashion in recent times with limitless possibilities of printing images on vast scales, and theatre design in general taking what might be described as a more ‘conceptual’ approach. It has been one of the joys of this process to put this art at the forefront of the design, utilising the original paint frame of Bristol Old Vic and more importantly the skills and artistry of its resident painters. The interior settings are therefore mostly created using hand-painted cloths depicting either segments of paintings of late 18th-century Bath or enlarged fragments of wallpaper from the period.

The Rivals arrives at Citizens Theatre 2 Nov 2016 -
The Rivals Tech rehearsal - images by Dominic Hill
The play has the idea of keeping up appearances at its core. This was a time of showing off and dressing up to impress. Many of the scenes of the play are actually set in dressing rooms and this gave us the idea of using costume rails filled with 18th-century clothes as both naturalistic items you might find in these interiors but also as scenic elements clearly visible just offstage and used in a more non-naturalistic way throughout the play. Clothes, therefore, play an important role in The Rivals and the recreation of these lavish late 18th century fashions has been a joy.

Overblown and extravagant, the 1770s is one of the most excessive decades of fashion with its towering wigs, huge skirts, rich fabrics and detailed embellishment. We've been very lucky again to have the amazing skills of the Bristol Costume Services workroom at our disposal. You will see have brought the designs for the women’s costumes to life in a breathtaking way from metres and metres of silk taffeta and dupion, and reams of intricately hand-stitched trimmings.

The Rivals arrives at Citizens Theatre 2 Nov 2016 -
The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic image by Mark Doucet
Although our production is very much rooted in its original 18th-century setting, we have also made the decision to use a few anachronistic prop and costume elements from later periods. This has brought another level of creative possibilities to the rehearsal room and allowed for the witty use of objects that may not be from 1775 but could have been taken from the props stores of any of the wonderful theatres we are touring to. This is, again, intentionally playing to the play's innate theatricality.

2 - 19 NOV


Unknown said…
I'm curious whether the backcloth for the duel scene was based on any particular source: it's of the style of the 1772 Perspective of the city of Bath in Somersetshire; but the viewpoint seems to be from lower down....