The exhibition ‘Playing with Scale’ is the culmination of my two-year Jocelyn Herbert Fellowship at the National Theatre/University of the Arts. It explores why designers make scale models and brings attention to their collaborative work with directors, scenic artists, actors and designers of lighting and projection. It focuses on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, showing how important models were for architect Denys Lasdun, who designed the Olivier Theatre, and how theatre designers have responded in very different ways to this unique space.
There are archive models of two productions from the early days of the new theatre: The Plough and the Stars (set designed by Geoffrey Scott, 1977) and The Life of Galileo (designed by Jocelyn Herbert, 1980). Four more recent productions continue the dialogue with the Olivier: Antigone (2012, designer Soutra Gilmour), The Comedy of Errors (2011, designer Bunny Christie), Exit the King (2018, designer Anthony Ward), and Antony and Cleopatra (2018, designer Hildegard Bechtler).
The exhibition, designed by Jemima Robinson, includes rarely seen sketch models, digital films made for use by the NT production team, archive sound recordings and a reading room with books on models, theatre design and practical model-making.
‘Props’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in September. I was very pleased when the designer suggested this photograph of a chair upholstered in pale green velvet for the cover, because it recalls Susan Melrose’s question about a chair on stage, something that has been in my mind throughout the research and writing of the book: ‘Does it cease to be a “theatre sign” if I observe it – and if I go so far as to “lose my gaze” momentarily in the richness of its fabric, in its pleasing curve of frame – without “translating” it into another sign?’ (A Semiotics of the Dramatic Text, 1994, page 26)