She is the most sought-after set designer in opera. And theatre. And rock, pop, hip-hop... Oh, and she also does the Olympics. Matthew Sweet goes backstage with Es Devlin
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2014
When he was nine years old, William Blake went to Peckham and experienced his first vision: “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”. Two centuries later, this tract of south London is not obviously supernatural territory, but one corner preserves its visionary possibilities. A long street, running close to the dry line of the Grand Surrey Canal. Here, sunk into the adapted carcass of a Victorian lemonade factory, is a blank steel door that opens on a staircase bright with glossy yellow paint. Walk up, and you emerge into a space that is half open-plan family home, half magic toyshop. Patchwork rugs, dolls’ houses, potted tulips, a semi-derelict upright piano. Drawers containing tape, scissors, stacks of coloured paper. Plastic crates with weirder cargoes—the languid hands of shop-window mannequins; masses of tiny human figures, arms and legs flailing, like a Tupperware party chez Hieronymus Bosch. And beyond all this, hunkered down over the kitchen table, is a woman using glue and cardboard and lightbulbs to conjure a new heaven and a new earth.
Es Devlin is the set designer who made it possible for Miley Cyrus to helter-skelter down a candy-pink fibreglass model of her own tongue. Who brought the cast of David McVicar’s Covent Garden production of “Les Troyens” face to face with a gargantuan horse-god forged from decommissioned machineguns. Who enabled Complicite, a theatre company, to transform a refreshment kiosk into a speeding tram, and a cluster of chairs into a galloping steed. She works with some of the highest names in high culture—Philip Glass, Russell Maliphant, Richard Wagner—and the massiest in mass culture—Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga. She goes from twerk to Gesamtkunstwerk, and all tackled with the same keen rigour. She is, surely, the only person ever to have given the members of Take That a presentation on Belgian surrealism. Or to have said, quite reasonably: “One of the advantages of working with Rihanna is that you spend a lot of your time waiting around—time in which you can read Schopenhauer.”
In April Devlin won an Olivier award for her contribution to Lucy Kirkwood’s award-strewn play “Chimerica”—a revolving translucent puzzle-box that reconfigured itself for 40 fast-paced, continent-crossing scenes. All the winners that night spoke from a spectacular set backed by a presidium of upscaled Olivier statuettes, also designed by Devlin. Unlike her fellow contenders, her work has been seen by millions who have never been through the doors of a West End theatre. For the Closing Ceremony at London 2012, she transformed the Olympic stadium into a gigantic Union Jack, then made its stripes a racetrack for the Pet Shop Boys, Ray Davies, One Direction, and a superfluity of roller-skating nuns.
More than four thousand performers took part. A flotilla of London landmarks—Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Battersea Power Station and the Gherkin—scudded across the arena. A Rushmore-scale model of John Lennon’s face coalesced in the centre of the flag. Darcey Bussell, dragged up as a phoenix, hurtled down towards the Olympic flame.
“She’s a visionary,” says Chloe Lamford, a former employee at Devlin’s studio, whose own eye-achingly stark designs for Orwell’s “1984” are now discomfiting audiences at the Playhouse Theatre in London. “She has big, bold, light-filled visual ideas. The next lot of set designers coming up now can think bigger because Es went first. She allowed us to be freer and bolder. To enter a more abstract world.”
Lyndsey Turner, the director of “Chimerica”, claims that she practically begs Devlin to work on her shows. “An hour of her eye and her brain is worth ten hours of somebody else’s,” she enthuses. “She receives story, image and spectacle with ferocious clarity and bravado.”
The film director Mike Figgis, who worked with Devlin on an English National Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, sounds willing to go down on his knees, too. “My regret is that she’s just too busy,” he admits. “Every time I get a film or a commercial or any project, the first person I call is Es. But unless you give her six months’ notice you’ve no chance of getting in there.” Six months might be conservative: she has projects announced for 2018.
There’s a philosophy that goes with all this, which Devlin lays out for me in an e-mail from a hotel room in Ipanema. “The environment and/or objects and light are chosen very specifically on a moment-by-moment basis. When it’s working, each constellation of word, prop, action, costume, character, light, plot and environment should chime towards a cumulative effect. For example: that shoe with that phrase with that light on that cup on that table in this room with this sound—and then that moment is over and we are onto the next one: that eye-shadow, with this music, with that fork, with that light on that face within the frame of that window wearing that T-shirt. It’s composed like notes on a stave—layers fusing together to form a whole sound, beat by beat.”
My first meeting with Es Devlin takes place in a café behind the London Palladium, two weeks before the press night of her first big show of this year—“I Can’t Sing!”, the X-Factor musical—Harry Hill’s and Steve Brown’s tuneful kick in Simon Cowell’s high-waisted pants. (Quite a hard kick, considering Cowell is an investor in the show.) The wooden doors of the Palladium’s scenery dock are open to the air: shoppers from Carnaby Street are crossing the road to watch thick-armed stage managers at work on Devlin’s set, which is, as yet, an untamed beast. There’s a story cooking here. The first two previews have been cancelled. Fleet Street and Broadway World have begun to salivate. The production might not have the eye-popping profligacy of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”—the $75m musical whose fractured limbs and crunched gears proved the richest source of copy in the recent history of American theatre—but it has Cowell, the Anglophone world’s pope of narrow-eyed Sadean camp. Bad news for him is good news for any click-hungry news outlet.
“I thought this was going to be a fun little musical,” Devlin says. “It’s turned out to be more complicated than that.” Don’t imagine that she’s worried. This, she says, is what previews are for. In the planning stages she was told that the interval changeover—the removal of one complex arrangement of stage machinery and the construction of another—was impossible. (People tend to say things like this to her, in the early stages of a production.) Her team can now do it in 50 minutes, and by opening night, she’s confident they’ll have it down to 20. “I can be very persuasive,” she says, ordering coffee and two sticky slices of tarte tatin. She pays, too. Then she enumerates the larks we’re going to have; the meetings I might gatecrash.
There’s the “Carmen” she’s doing for Bregenz in 2017—the Austrian opera festival where a 7,000-strong audience faces a stage that floats on the glassy waters of Lake Constance. (If you saw “Quantum of Solace”, you’ll have clocked Daniel Craig disrupting its “Tosca”.) There’s “The Nether”, a play for the Royal Court in July. (Scary, prescient—she’ll e-mail me the script.) And the new show for Lily Allen, back on the road after maternity leave. (The plan is to have her materialise inside a giant doll’s milk bottle.) Or “Hamlet” at the Barbican in August 2015, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (Another collaboration with Lyndsey Turner, and surely next summer’s hottest ticket.) Or the hush-hush job that’s taking her backwards and forwards to Rio. “And”, she says, “we should sneak you in to see the interval change on ‘I Can’t Sing!’ I think they’ll be fine about it. If they’re not, we’ll just disguise you as one of the crew.”
More trouble is on its way for “I Can’t Sing!”. A few days later, a performance is abandoned after another unplanned Glyndebourne-length interval, and the director is obliged to announce bad news about “a major electrical malfunction backstage”. Devlin’s explanation is slightly different. The set, she says, runs on powerful batteries that have to be recharged each night. Somebody forgot to plug them in.
Despite these sensitivities, a disguise proves unnecessary. On the night after the opening, I’m ushered through the pass door from the stalls to the backstage area. A puppet dog, named in honour of Gary Barlow, waits limply in the wings. Above my head roosts an unkindness of sofas. The paraphernalia of the first act—Simon Cowell’s childhood home, a motorway flyover, a rubbery mouth big enough to consume an actor dressed as a bluebottle, a caravan containing an iron lung and a functioning kitchen—has been shifted out of the building. Huge chunks of set elements are being scooted about the stage: dressing rooms and offices squeezed into shiny one-tonne boxes; an enormous and arrestingly vaginal inflatable flower, primed to produce a row of chorines and an enormous and arrestingly phallic inflatable anther; a silvered chamber within which the leading man will be transformed into a chittering four-foot alien, who will then depart in a flying saucer that swoops down over the heads of the people in the stalls. As I absorb all this, the chorus are gathering for the opening number, adjusting their Valkyrie helmets and Danish-pastry wigs. And none of us knows that in six weeks’ time, the show will be closed, the theatre dark.
As it turns out, Devlin’s response will be a barrage of rueful laughter. “This interview has outlasted a West End show. I wonder which one will prove the worthiest effort?”
Top Es Devlin in her Peckham studio
Above The set for "Chimerica" at the Almeida in 2013