In Conversation with Ben Ormerod, Lighting Designer of The Duchess [of Malfi]

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a chilling, contemporary take on Webster's gory revenge tragedy, written by Zinnie Harris. We caught up with Lighting Designer, Ben Ormerod, who explained how lighting was used to emphasise moments which were particularly important in the play and its themes. (This conversation includes spoilers!)

Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

What sort of conversations did you have with director Zinnie Harris about how she wanted the world of the play to look and feel, and how lighting would help create that world?

We actually didn't discuss the lighting very much during the rehearsals. I don't like talking about the lighting in great detail since it's almost impossible to describe, and any description of what I might be thinking can lead to misunderstandings. Besides, collaboration isn't just about talking, it's about listening to the conversations the director has with the actors, watching the scenes as the actors discover them. It's during this time that I get a sense of what the director wants from the lighting. We did talk in detail about two things, however; the titles projected onto the set accompanied by an intense light on one of the actors was a request from Zinnie; and we had several conversations about whether the lights were on or off on the cell in part two. This second conversation was quite difficult to unravel; was it bright or dark in the cell? Could the Duchess see out or not? Elements like these are clues in my search for the right language for the lighting. 

Each character is introduced with their name projected onto the back wall.
Photo from Tom Piper

How did you use lighting to convey atmosphere at key moments of the play and to create distinct mood changes? 

I tend to attach different qualities of light to particular ideas and then use the structure of the play to drive the lighting. I suppose the key theme in the lighting in this production is the conflict between day and night, or between the sun and the moon. In my personal iconography, I associate the sun with maleness and the moon with femaleness (this is a classical allusion, Sun = Apollo, Moon = Diana). But in The Duchess [of Malfi] I reversed this so that the sun was associated with the Duchess, fertility and freedom, whilst the moon was associated with Ferdinand, nightmare and lunacy. The scene where this is most obvious (although the tension is there throughout) is the final scene of the first half. This scene takes place in the nursery at night but is lit with warm sunlit colours. After Ferdinand enters, the stage transforms gradually into a cold, moonlit space. The opposite transformation happens with the entrances of the musicians in part two. Each time she enters, we emerge from the night, or the cell (which is lit with the moonlight colour, even if the light itself is more like an intense version of strip lights) into a long sunrise. 

The lighting changes from warm, sunlit tones to a colder light when Ferdinand enters.
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Lighting creates a tense atmosphere in the torture scenes - what kind of choices did you and Zinnie make about how to light this scene most effectively?

The tenseness comes from the rhythm of the sequence more than the light itself; and this was very much led by the sound designer. I established two looks for the sequence; the bright cell top light, and a single shaft on the Duchess during the projection sequences. These two looks, along with the blackouts (complete darkness), driven by the sound and projection, gave the rhythm of the sequence. One technical detail; the lighting desk was controlled by the sound desk during the sequence, so that the synchronisation was perfect; if the lights are even a fraction of a second out the effect is lost.

During the torture scene the lighting is controlled by the sound desk to ensure perfect synchronisation for maximum imapct.
Image by Tim Morozzo 

Darkness itself is almost a theme in the play - as it is in Webster's original - how did you use the interplay of light and lack of light to convey the darkness of the story?

I didn't! I actually went out of my way to light the darkest scenes as brightly as possible. Tony Harrison, the poet and playwright, once said - and this is a paraphrase because he said it in a conversation with Vanessa Redgrave - "Tragedies should be performed in the daylight. the crimes should be brought out into the sun." Although I only heard that quote a few weeks ago, I think that I had something like that in my mind. Also, many years ago I visited Holloway prison and was surprised to see how brightly lit the cells were. It was so that the cameras didn't miss anything, but it made quite an impression. 

Many of the darkest scenes are lit brightly
Image by Tim Morozzo

Where else do you feel lighting choices help highlight other themes in the play like power, control, redemption and hope?

Well; the cleansing, revealing, healing power of sunlight is at the heart of the design.

Image by Tim Morozzo

Here's an example of a lighting plan for the show

For more behind the scenes insights, have a read of our Q & A with writer and director Zinnie Harris, where she discuses how the design helps tell the Duchess' story. 

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a co-production with The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

This powerful story of family, forbidden love and fierce gender politics runs at Tramway until 21st September. Tickets can be booked online or by calling our Box Office team on 0141 429 0022.