From Sondheim to Dr Seuss: the jaw-dropping designs of Vicki Mortimer – in pictures

The ghostly showgirls of Follies, Wayne McGregor’s spellbinding Raven Girl and the madcap world of The Cat in the Hat have all been realised by the designer, who looks back at five of her key shows

‘Our job is to design something that’s incomplete without performance.” Vicki Mortimer makes it sound simple, but that belies the architectural sophistication and bone-deep emotional impact of her designs for theatre, dance and opera. Besides a long association with director Katie Mitchell – most recently on When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett – she has developed memorable collaborations with Nicholas Hytner, Wayne McGregor and Dominic Cooke.

“We are problem solvers,” she says. The imaginative depth of her pragmatic choices is always evident, especially now that many of her productions are filmed for cinema broadcast. “Detailed decisions suddenly have a validity that I wasn’t always able to argue for when I started working. It has validated something I was already looking for: an attention to the exact nature of things.”

Follies at the National Theatre, London, in 2017.
Follies at the National Theatre, London, in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Follies

  • Follies at the National Theatre, London, in 2017

Mortimer won an Olivier award for best costume design for her work on Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical, set at the reunion of a Broadway follies show. It was directed at the National Theatre by Dominic Cooke in 2017 and has now returned.

Early costume references for Vicki Mortimer’s work
Early costume references for Vicki Mortimer’s work Photograph: courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Early costume references for Mortimer’s work

“I needed to understand what the follies as a genre meant in the American imagination, and then what had happened in the US between 1941 (when the fictional Weismann Follies ended) and 1971, when the reunion takes place. Who were these women before and after? It’s really goosepimply, because the depth of their stories suddenly takes hold.

“The prewar follies were a celebration of the American girl, an aspirational image of how fabulous women can be. Each former showgirl is shadowed by the ghost of her younger self. The show is about lost youth and also about a lost America, and how you have to live with the choices you make.

Backstage at Follies, designed by Vicki Mortimer
Backstage at Follies, designed by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Matt Humphrey/Curtain Call 2017
Follies costumes and headdresses by Vicki Mortimer
Follies costumes and headdresses by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Courtesy Vicky Mortimer
Follies costume drawings by Vicki Mortimer
Follies costume drawings by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Courtesy Vicky Mortimer
  • Backstage at Follies, costumes, headdresses and costume drawings by Mortimer

“The ghost showgirls go back to around 1918 and on to 1941. You’ve also got the 1970s party guests, and the characters in 1940s daywear. There’s a huge historical range of costumes.

“I tried to retain some vestigial connection between the young women and what their older 1970s counterparts wore to the party, perhaps a shape or surface. Essentially important was to ask – why has this woman come to the party? How does she want to present herself? For some, it’s simple, for others there are much more complicated reasons. Heidi, the oldest of the Follies guests, has come because she knows she’s going to die soon.

Models for the set design
Models for the Follies set design. Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Models for the Follies set design

“Working with Dominic was sublime, because every visual choice was completely embedded in the characters.

“I’ve enjoyed returning to the production, because there is something about the chemical reaction of an audience that alters what is in your eye. I’ve sat with audiences and had real lightbulb moments.”

Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl at the Royal Opera House in 2015.
Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl at the Royal Opera House in 2015 Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
  • Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl at the Royal Opera House in 2015

Raven Girl


Wayne McGregor’s ballet, based on Audrey Niffenegger’s illustrated tale, premiered at the Royal Ballet in London in 2013.

“Audrey had this idea of a girl born to a raven mother and postman father, and the predicament of her identity as she grows up. Audrey’s drawings are like held moments in the narrative. We projected some of those moments on a gauze as emotional content – like the nest or the touching drawing of the outlines of both the bird and child.

Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, with Sarah Lamb.
Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, with Sarah Lamb. Photograph: Johan Persson
  • Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, with Sarah Lamb

“The design had to be something entirely of its own, and we landed on the idea of a cliff at the edge of the landscape. We felt we needed something really substantial, monumental, from which to initiate the choreographic vocabulary, the dynamic motion. We were looking for specific reference. Pembrokeshire is part of my childhood. The landscape there came under great geological pressure, so you get these great archways of compressed strata. Matt Hellyer, an amazing design colleague, had been on a tour of the Welsh coastline not long before and came up with a photo he’d taken at Skrinkle bay.

Rocks at Skrinkle Haven, Pembrokeshire.
Rocks at Skrinkle Haven, Pembrokeshire. Photograph: Matt Hellyer
  • Rocks at Skrinkle Haven, Pembrokeshire

“It’s a reminder that you draw on research from the internet and books, but also from your visual memory bank and conversation.

The set for Raven Girl by the Royal Opera House head scenic artist Emma Troubridge and designer Catherine Smith.
The set for Raven Girl by the Royal Opera House head scenic artist Emma Troubridge and designer Catherine Smith. Photograph: -
Emma Troubridge/Catherine Smith Raven Girl set build photos
The set build for Raven Girl. Photograph: -
  • The set build for Raven Girl by the Royal Opera House head scenic artist Emma Troubridge and designer Catherine Smith

Rehearsal shots, Raven Girl cliff pictures
A rehearsal for Raven Girl, shows the cliffs. Mortimer’s sets and costumes are inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s faux-naif aquatints for the Raven Girl storybook. Photograph: Ivor Kerslake
  • A rehearsal for Raven Girl. Mortimer’s sets and costumes are inspired by Niffenegger’s own faux-naif aquatints for the Raven Girl storybook

Rehearsal shots, Raven Girl cliff pictures
Raven Girl in rehearsal. Photograph: Ivor Kerslake
  • Raven Girl in rehearsal

“We had lots of conversations about how to describe flight. We considered having a bank of big fans on stage to create the sense of birds in motion, but we didn’t have room. Wayne was very interested in ideas of flocking and murmuration. He looked at single and multiple bodies in flight.

Costume designs for The Raven
Costume designs for Raven Girl. Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Costume designs for Raven Girl

Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl.
Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
  • Sarah Lamb in Raven Girl

“It felt important not to achieve the most beautiful wings – which is where we diverge from the book – but to bring up their mechanised nature. My drawings suggested spokes of an umbrella: I wanted the feathers to feel separate from the arms, so that you could see they were connected by a steel structure. Wayne felt certain that the wing solution should feel disruptive and uncomfortable, that what we wish for is not necessarily what brings us happiness. It’s fairytale territory.”

The Lyric Theatre of Chicago production of Wozzeck, with set design by Vicki Mortimer, who also designed the costumes
The Lyric Theatre of Chicago production of Berg’s Wozzeck, with set design by Vicki Mortimer, who also designed the costumes Photograph: Andrew Coffi

Wozzeck

  • The Lyric Theatre of Chicago production of Berg’s Wozzeck


Mortimer won the International Opera award for design for Alban Berg’s 1925 opera, directed in Chicago by David McVicar in 2015.

“The composition of Wozzeck was interrupted by the first world war. The idea was already in Berg’s mind – he was conscripted into the German army in 1914, experienced the trenches, and wrote it on leave in 1917 and 1918. His wartime experience massively informed how he saw the story, as well his approach to the composition itself. That was David’s starting point.

A white lily lies on a first world war monument in a burial ground of the garrison cemetery in Berlin
A white lily lies on a first world war monument in a burial ground of the garrison cemetery in Berlin Photograph: dpa/Alamy
  • A white lily lies on a first world war monument in a burial ground of the garrison cemetery in Berlin

“He came across a remarkable memorial in Berlin from the first world war, a shrouded figure with a helmet on its chest, and a fist coming out from under the shroud. It had an inscription that we used in our design, essentially saying, ‘We’ll be back.’ It gave a powerful shock of this image of death, regret and mourning but with great threat for the future.

Drawing for the production of Wozzeck by Vicki Mortimer
Drawing for the production of Wozzeck designed by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
Model shot for the production of Wozzeck by Vicki Mortimer
Drawing for the production of Wozzeck designed by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Drawings for the production of Wozzeck

Tech shot for production of Wozzeck by Vicki Mortimer
Tech shot for production of Wozzeck designed by Vicki Mortimer Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Tech shot for Wozzeck

“The stage curtain looks mildewed and damp – it should feel as if it’s been in the trenches as well. In every design, there’s such a payback from every detail and every textural investment that you make. A design can accumulate information in a way that we might not be able to identify in forensic detail, but it helps us understand the world of the piece.

Wozzeck, Lyric Theatre of Chicago production, set design by Vicki Mortimer who also designed the costumes
Wozzeck, Lyric Theatre of Chicago production, set design by Vicki Mortimer who also designed the costumes Photograph: Andrew Coffi
  • Wozzeck, Lyric theatre of Chicago production

“Berg’s music is unbelievable: really unsparing, but it becomes increasingly beautiful as things get darker. The music gives you so much information; you have to work out what your visual information can provide in parallel.

“There’s always a brilliant moment in dance and opera, where after getting used to the sound of the rehearsal piano, you suddenly hear the orchestra in the pit. A rather austere experience becomes so rich and profound.”

Written On Skin by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp designed by Vicki Mortimer at Royal Opera House, London.
Written on Skin by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp designed by Vicki Mortimer at Royal Opera House, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Written on Skin

  • Written on Skin by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp at Royal Opera House, London

Katie Mitchell directed the world premiere of George Benjamin’s opera in Aix en Provence and then the Royal Opera in 2012.

Written On Skin by George Benjamin, designed by Vicki Mortimer, at Royal Opera House
Written On Skin by George Benjamin, designed by Vicki Mortimer, at Royal Opera House Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
  • Written on Skin by George Benjamin at Royal Opera House

“Designing for musical and choreographic contexts is all about counterpoint – not duplicating what the music is doing, but supplementing it with a complementary visual presence. When I work with Katie in opera, there’s always a vivid sense of this. She examines how natural gesture and encounters can work alongside an abstract environment.

“Martin Crimp’s libretto for Written on Skin uses a he said-she said objectification of the characters. Katie asked: what is this medieval story, who are the angels and how do we make sense of it? The logic she created was that a mysterious archive holds this story of this woman and her death, and in a purgatorial way, it keeps on being re-enacted. There’s a terrible tension between what the characters are doing and what they know will happen.

Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House – final model for Act 3
Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House – final model for act three Photograph: Courtesy Vicki Mortimer
  • Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House – final model for act three

“We used a split-stage approach that Katie calls simultaneity, where you ask the audience to watch action in more than one space at a time. Scenes were played between the woman, her husband and lover, and then this other world that could comment on them, breaking the boundary between the old space and archive space. Simultaneous spaces seemed important – they enabled an awful pressure on what these characters revisited, and the clinical, archival nature of how that was made to happen.

Barbara Hannigan (Agnes) in Written On Skin.
Barbara Hannigan (Agnes) in Written on Skin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
  • Barbara Hannigan as Agnes in Written on Skin

“Written on Skin was an amazing feat on Katie’s part. I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to work with several directors more than once. There is a thrill the first time you meet and work out how to speak to each other. But when you meet again and again, the attention goes more directly into the piece you’re working on.

Angus Wright (The Cat in the Hat) and Justin Salinger (Fish in the Bowl) in The Cat in the Hat at the Cottesloe, London, with designs by Vicki Mortimer.
Angus Wright (The Cat in the Hat) and Justin Salinger (Fish in the Bowl) in The Cat in the Hat at the Cottesloe, London, with designs by Vicki Mortimer. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Cat in the Hat

  • Angus Wright as The Cat in the Hat and Justin Salinger as Fish in the Bowl in The Cat in the Hat at the Cottesloe, London

Mortimer and Katie Mitchell created their first show for a very young audience at the National Theatre, London, in 2009.

Mark Arends (The Boy), Helena Lymbery (Sally) and Justin Salinger (Fish in the Bowl) in The Cat in the Hat.
Mark Arends (The Boy), Helena Lymbery (Sally) and Justin Salinger (Fish in the Bowl) in The Cat in the Hat. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“Dr Seuss gave the most joyous graphic identity to piggyback on, like a visual score. We’d never worked with such direct source material. Katie stepped up the conceptual demands, saying that not only did it have to look like the book, it had to look exactly like each double-page spread. Preliterate children learn their books visually, so she wanted them to be able to recognise the spread at each turn.

“As soon as you start looking at the book you realise how difficult that is – even the people aren’t people-shaped. And to get the richness of the print takes a lot of technical work. I tried to find the density of a line and how it disappears at the end of a stroke.

Angus Wright in The Cat in the Hat, designed by Vicki Mortimer.
Angus Wright in The Cat in the Hat, designed by Vicki Mortimer. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“What happens on the page is impossible in reality. It has to be achieved against the laws of physics. It was quite a headache for the props department, who rose magnificently to the occasion. The tidying-up machine was a true triumph.

“The costumes, too, were very labour-intensive, all bespoke. We used raffia for the fur in Angus Wright’s catsuit – each bit was knotted on separately, a little like making a full-body cat-wig!

A scene from The Cat in the Hat.
A scene from The Cat in the Hat. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“This was the first kids’ show Katie had done – it was pitched to three- to six-year-olds, and we wanted to make a less daunting performance space. We created a tiny auditorium, with an area at the front where they could sit on the floor. At the end of each week’s rehearsal we invited children of the right age range from Lambeth schools to see the work-in-progress, which was massively helpful. They were a fairly ruthless bunch, but the payback of having a show that was filtered through the audience was worth it. When I look at the pictures I can still hear the children laughing.”

• Photographs: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian; courtesy Vicki Mortimer; Andrew Coffi; Alamy; Ivor Kerslake; Johan Persson; Matt Hellyer; Matt Humphrey/Curtain Call.

Contributor

David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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