Theatre designers are the ultimate collaborators, and yet their huge contribution to theatre is often overlooked and a great deal of their work goes under-recognised. Think about Peter Brook’s iconic 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which its aesthetic and visuals were inseparable from its impact. Sally Jacobs’ design was credited by Jonathan Miller for the way “it liberated us from literal representation”, and yet her contribution is often overlooked.

However, when we dredge from memory a show we have seen, how it looks is often the first thing that springs to mind. What do people recall primarily from War Horse? I’d say it is Handspring’s brilliant puppets (not just Joey the horse but that marvellous goose) and Rae Smith’s design, which features what looks like a strip of paper torn from a sketchbook on which drawings evoking WWI are projected. 

The first thing that people remember when they think of Stephen Daldry’s re-imagining of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is designer Ian McNeil’s doll’s house on stilts, perched in a wasted Blitz landscape around which urchins roam. The design, which departs from previous productions which offered a realistic version of the Birlings’ comfortable dining room, alerts the audience that they are going to see something unexpected. 

From the moment that theatre came inside into the Jacobean playhouses, design has played a crucial role in the success of productions, and technology has allowed it to become ever more sophisticated. Smith’s design for War Horse was made possible because of the projections delivered by 59 Productions, a company which has been at the forefront of using video design and technology in innovative ways – with productions ranging from Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha at the ENO and the Metropolitan Opera to the Sting musical, The Last Ship. The staging by 59 Productions of Paul Auster’s meta-thriller City of Glass at Home in Manchester in 2017 used video and animation to stage the unstageable, and created optical illusions which deceived the eye, as a smart apartment dissolved into Grand Central Station in a blink. 

From 1539, when San Gallo filled a crystal sphere with water and illuminated it with candles from behind to create a rising sun effect on stage, through to the rigorously engineered sets of Ralph Koltai for the musical Metropolis in the West End in 1989, technology has always been a significant driver in the development of theatre design.    

Koltai said that designing was not about drawing or making models but “about ideas.” The designer is not there just to solve the problems of the script or to illustrate it. Under the influence of their European counterparts, British designers have increasingly understood that, at its best, design is often a form of sculpture in space, whose purpose is, as Chloe Lamford, says a means of “making metaphor.” 

Think of Lizzie Clachan’s design for Yerma, starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic, in which the heroine was trapped behind glass as if in an exhibition. Or Tom Scutt’s glittering chandeliers and fraying grandeur that set the tone of moral decay in Josie Rourke’s revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in London in 2015 and on Broadway. Or Lamford’s design for Ophelias Zimmer, directed by Katie Mitchell, at the Royal Court in 2016 in which Ophelia’s prison cell floor filled with water that only she – and the audience – could see.  

Even more distinctive was Lamford’s design for The Internet is a Serious Business, in which she avoided showing us what the internet looked like (which we all know because we use it every day) and instead concentrated on trying to use visuals that reflected what the internet feels like; a large ball pool was a significant feature.

Such designs have sometimes been accused of using visuals to hide a multitude of sins. “Too much visual spinning; too many skinny texts,” declared Susannah Clapp back in 2013 when reviewing Georg Kaiser’s From Morning to Midnight at the National. She criticised shows where it's “the design rather than the content that lingers”. The critic Matt Trueman has also written about “death by design.”  But most critics – including Clapp and Trueman – would recognise that increasingly imaginative and innovative theatre design is one of the things that has helped drag British theatre into the 21st century.  

Sometimes the work of a company is intrinsically wrapped up in how it looks. Quarantine’s work owes as much to designer Simon Banham as it does to the directorial vision of Richard Gregory and Renny O’Shea. Bill Mitchell’s designs were an integral part of the aesthetic of both Kneehigh and subsequently Wildworks, where he also turned director. Punchdrunk’s shows follow a site responsive tradition pioneered in the UK by Geraldine Pilgrim and Mike Pearson and Mike Brooks, and by Robert Wilson and Hans Peter Kuhn in projects such as HG at the Clink in 1995. Punchdrunk drops the audience into a finely detailed alternative universe in which every space is like wandering onto a film set, and every object they may touch feels authentic. Often in such productions, the contribution of individuals becomes increasingly blurred. 

As design has changed and become less illustrative and more integral to stagings, so the boundary between design and direction is less clear. Designer Julian Crouch made such a significant contribution to Shock-Headed Peter (1998) that it was hard to see where design ends and direction begins. Maybe the distinctions no longer serve? 

In 2019 the renowned designer Tom Scutt will make his directorial debut at the Donmar with a stage version of the cult movie Berberian Sound Studio. In an interview for the Donmar’s Supporter’s Magazine he told me: 

I don’t really see it as a job swap. What I’ve always just wanted to do was make work, and it so happened that design was the way I chose to make it. But as a designer you don’t really get to create your own projects to the degree that other departments do. With Berberian Sound Studio it’s me being the instigator rather than necessarily the director. I am bringing it to a group of people who I know will work really brilliantly together to make a piece of theatre, rather than just compartmentalising our roles.

That may well be something that we see a great deal more of in the future, as theatre becomes an increasingly collaborative medium and the process by which it is made changes. We will leave the enormous contributions that lighting and sound designers are making to our changing theatre culture for another time. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the increasing importance of design in theatre is that the old boundaries about who does what – and how the ownership of productions is described and attributed – are dissolving. Perhaps at last Sally Jacobs will get her due.

On Design: Tom Scutt