She is the most sought-after set designer in opera. And theatre. And rock, pop, hip-hop... Oh, and she also does 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
Esmeralda Devlin was born 42 years ago in Kingston upon Thames, but grew up in Rye, the elevated East Sussex home of Mapp, Lucia and Henry James. The town has imprinted itself on her life and work. The name of her first child, Ry, salutes her childhood home as well as her taste in slide-guitar music. The model of Carthage she constructed for “Les Troyens” was a successor to the Rye Town Model—a painstakingly made scale replica in the local Heritage Centre that tells the story of the area with modest sound and light effects. It was there, too, in the local primary school, that Devlin first sensed something of her future life. “We were rehearsing the Rye Brownies’ production of ‘Snow White’ and using the school out of hours,” she says. “I didn’t really have a part—and when it came to it, I forgot the one line I was given to say. But what I remember vividly is the exhilarating sense of misrule and anarchy backstage. Running wild down the unlit school corridors at dusk—those same corridors that we were never allowed to run down during school hours. Different rules could apply in this after-hours world, things could be so because you say that they are so.”
It might be in the blood. Her grandfather, Patrick Devlin, was a law lord who found the Court of Appeal “dreary beyond belief” and put his energies into the campaign to free the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. The same branch of the family tree produced William, an actor who played Lear on television at the age of 37, and Christopher, a Jesuit priest and scholar of Renaissance literature who was convinced of Shakespeare’s loyalty to Rome. This Catholic inheritance has proved richly useful for Es. Ask her about it and she’ll speak nostalgically of “chanting the mass in Latin, setting up the wine and wafer props in the golden theatre of the Eucharist cabinet on the altar, chiming the bells on cue”. (Great-uncle Christopher’s essay “Hamlet’s Divinity” will soon be on Benedict Cumberbatch’s reading list: she and Lyndsey Turner, also raised a Catholic, want their new production to have a purgatorial air.)
This heritage gave Es Devlin a broader appetite for ritual. Prominent in her childhood memories are Rye’s annual bonfire, a pagan ritual centuries older than Guy Fawkes, and traditionally a night of uproar and lawlessness; the May Day festival in nearby Hastings, at which bikers and drummers and Morris men accompany a faintly sinister Green Man along the seafront; and the transformation scene in the local pantomime, through which rags became ballgowns and pumpkins, coaches.
Her single-mindedness, though, is a matrilineal inheritance. In the 1990s Angela Devlin, a former teacher, campaigned, successfully, for the release from prison of a family friend who had been wrongfully convicted of drowning her husband’s aunt in the River Brede at Winchelsea. It was Angela who picked out her daughter’s unusual name. (“I was probably high on pethidine,” she breezes, “and I’d just read ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.”) Thanks to Es, she has now read Jay-Z’s memoirs, sat in the back of a stretch limo with Kanye West, and found her opinion eagerly sought on an early cut of “Homecoming”, West’s hip-hop evocation of Chicago. Her delight in these things is palpable.
The young Es, her mother remembers, loved mirrors and kaleidoscopes and magic tricks. She made perspective boxes and gave projector shows in the cupboard under the stairs. She studied piano, violin and clarinet on a Saturday-morning course at the Royal Academy of Music—which meant that she was walking happily around London, unaccompanied, at the age of 11. The story Angela Devlin considers most revealing is about the Christmas when she decided to do without a television. Her four children rebelled by taking the train to Tunbridge Wells and singing carols until the moneyed, susceptible locals had coughed up the £80 needed to buy a set. “In those days you had to be 18 to buy a TV, so Es persuaded a passer-by to take the money into the shop and get it for them. And then—somehow—they carried it home with them.”
Es Devlin was eight years old when she took part in this enterprising scam. Despite her nous and resourcefulness, it took her until her mid-20s to find her niche. A lengthy career in higher education began with an English degree at Bristol University and continued with an art foundation course at Central St Martin’s in London, where a lecturer pushed her in the direction of a further year with the Motley Theatre Design Course, an independent outfit housed in a corner of Covent Garden. “It was a red room full of ten students, all working 20-hour days and living on Cup-a-Soup and Pot Noodles. It felt like a good place to take an obsession.”
The portfolio she produced there won her the Linbury prize, a coveted envelope of cash awarded biannually to the student designers who have best pleased a jury convened by the philanthropists John and Anya Sainsbury. This success secured Devlin’s first professional gig—a production of Marlowe’s “Edward II” at the Bolton Octagon. She arrived with a radical idea: she wanted to convert the stage into a functioning bathhouse, lined with shiny white tiles that could be sluiced with blood and water. Heads shook. Teeth were sucked. “Because she was a young woman”, Angela Devlin says, “they were sniffy towards her. But she went back home and stayed up learning all the plumbing terminology. They changed their attitude after that.” (This kind of memory-work is a habit: a journey to meet a new music-business collaborator is often spent poring over their lyrics.)
The set of the Octagon “Edward II” earned Devlin a stack of warm reviews and her first newspaper profile. The experience of making it established a template for her career. She thinks of an idea. Somebody says it can’t be done. She does it. It happened when she wanted a 20-foot mechanical man to follow Take That over a stage thrust out into football grounds across Europe. It happened when it was pointed out to her that 16 hours was a very short time to envelop the Olympic track with a 120ft Damien Hirst painting. She likes, she says, to work with people with “a wild glint in the eye who enjoy the territory that sits between ‘impossible’ and ‘might just be possible’ ”. She knows that this is a territory fraught with potential humiliation. Half an hour before the BBC cameras went live on the Closing Ceremony, Devlin and her team realised that the staples for securing the structure had vanished, along with an entire one-eighth segment of the flag. “We ran the entire athletics track looking for the last piece and eventually found it in a heap in a bin—it had been removed as a trip hazard by health and safety.” The other problem was solved by collective effort—hundreds of volunteers, placed at one-metre intervals around the perimeter, acting as human tent-pegs.
“There’s a fantastic charm to Es,” says Gemma Bodinetz, one of her earliest collaborators, and now artistic director of the Liverpool Playhouse. “She manages by science, by wit and by craft to persuade people to do things they might have thought twice about.” Somehow, she recalls, her designer bamboozled the Royal Court into cutting away the floor structure of their upstairs theatre to receive Rebecca Prichard’s play “Yard Gal” (1998)—which they had toured out of the back of a van, to prisons, with a simple set consisting of three illuminated cubes. Mike Figgis also found Devlin adept at handling the bosses, as their “Lucrezia Borgia” made its way through the gut of the English National Opera. “It was a bit of a struggle for me,” he confesses, “because working in that big institution was not the most energising experience I’ve ever had. There were lots of people with clipboards saying ‘Oh no, we don’t do that in opera.’ But Es was like this demonic voice at my shoulder saying ‘Come on, you can do what you like. You’re the boss.’ And you know, I should have listened to her more, because in the end I was overwhelmed by the marsh gas that rises out of an institution like that.”
Devlin seems immune to such hazards, partly because she has proved that good visual ideas can move more easily between art forms than the personnel who produce them or the audiences who follow them; that the stage-play, the opera and the rock gig might share a common language—and one with a vocabulary that could bear some expansion. She designed her first concert at the Barbican in 2003—the farewell performance of the punk band Wire, whose four members she stapled inside a quartet of translucent boxes and attached to hospital ECG machines. (Their heartbeats became part of the music.) Shortly afterwards, a friend of Devlin’s heard Kanye West sacking his designer over the phone, and nudged him towards some online images of the Barbican event. West soon discovered that his work sounded more substantial when performed within the simple, elemental spaces constructed for him by Devlin: cubes of light, widescreen landscapes and cloudscapes. Last summer, the Rolling Stones underwent a similar conversion. Mick Jagger forbade Devlin to put him in a box, but he did allow her to wean him from his attachment to tigerskin and giant inflatable Honky Tonk women. The Stones played Hyde Park within a monochrome woodland watched over by images of their younger selves. It dignified them; brought them closer to art.
Top "Les Troyens" (with a nod to Ry) at Covent Garden in 2012
Above Miley Cyrus's arena tour this year
Devlin doesn’t do all this on her own. She works with a small team, and her studio has a democratic atmosphere. Even if you’re just an observer with a notepad and pencil, she brings you into the conversation, the foraging and information-gathering. It’s informal, too. Her children—Ry, now seven, and Ludo, four—remain unbanished from the workspaces, and it’s pleasingly hard to tell where their toy collection ends and their parents’ stock of design materials begins. Devlin is married to a costume designer, Jack Galloway, who has his workshop on the ground floor of the building.
On one visit to Peckham—summoned by a text that tells me something interesting is about to happen—I find Kasper Holten, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, sitting at the table to discuss the Bregenz “Carmen”. A reliquary of abandoned ideas litters the kitchen worktops. Holten didn’t run with Devlin’s first brainwave, a set inspired by the imagery of bullfighting kitsch. She and her long-time assistant Bronia Housman have worked up a second: two gigantic forms that break through the surface of Lake Constance and support a series of stage-sized decks that might, she speculates, be moved through the air with hydraulics. She wants filmed material, too, to be projected onto this structure—to give the audience a close-up view of the singers’ faces, a trick that is standard at rock concerts but still rare in opera.
As Holten and his choreographer mull this over, Devlin and Housman make cheese on toast, lining the slices with halved cherry tomatoes, like the bumps on the flanks of a Dalek. It’s the only thing Devlin can cook. When her husband isn’t around, it’s the only thing she eats.
Will it be possible? The production is two years away. Perhaps the technology doesn’t exist now, but very soon, it might. This is typical Devlin. When I ask what she’s planning for the Cumberbatch “Hamlet”, she answers with a question. “What if we could use sound to modulate and expand and contract the space of the Barbican? His soliloquy could fill the whole theatre. What if you felt like you were in his head?”
A couple of weeks later, Devlin’s team meets to discuss a more proximate project: the Headlong theatre company’s production of “The Nether”, by the Texas-born playwright Jennifer Haley. The play is a moral thriller about a man under investigation for his conduct in an online environment where anonymous users gather to commit any venial or mortal sin they please—a virtual Victorian country house with sweet basil and Swiss chard in the kitchen garden, and unresisting children in the bedrooms. Spread out across the floorboards of Devlin’s studio are huge sheets of photographic paper. Images of ice-axes, hammers, bradawls, arts-and-crafts interiors, mahogany newel posts, poplar trees. The director, Jeremy Herrin, escaped from rehearsals of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, is flipping through a book: “The Architecture of Authority”, by the photographer Richard Ross. Images of the segregation cells at Abu Ghraib, an interrogation chamber at Guantánamo, comfortless corridors in courtrooms, schools and police stations. Spaces with stainless-steel sinks; CCTV cameras planted in every concrete vertex. The aesthetic is already legible in the maquette that Devlin has planted on the kitchen table, the cardboard simulacrum of an interview room, with blank walls, hard-backed chairs, little strip-lights suspended on wires. As if she were about to perform a puppet version of Haley’s play, Devlin reaches into the interior space of the model and separates the iris-like panels of the back wall to reveal a mirrored space hung with model birch trees. At the centre of the forest is a box that represents the characters’ secret online retreat: a little room containing a doll’s house and a bed.
“Terrible things take place here,” she explains. “But when we go through into the Nether, it should be an attractive place. The audience should breathe a sigh of relief.”
She opens her laptop and brings up an image that informed the design. A hotel in Lapland—a perfectly reflective cuboid suspended in the woodland canopy. Herrin hums and haws about the bare trees: the Royal Court’s Swedish vampire play, “Let the Right One In”, used a striking snowscape skewered with 38 naked silver birches. Devlin, though, has a solution. She gets on the phone to Luke Halls, regular collaborator, expert in animation and neighbour in Peckham. He ambles through the door with a bag over his shoulder, and moments later he and Devlin are describing how they might bring on an avenue of greener, more expansive trees, and use projection to make the real leaves thresh and shiver. Everyone is contemplating how the audience will feel when a gentle summer breeze appears to disturb the air of the theatre.
Where do plays happen? What are we looking at when we sit in the theatre? For Devlin, it’s about entering a state that reconfigures the senses. “Mike Figgis once said to me, ‘Film is an illusion. You think you are watching it, but in fact you are hearing it. It’s the music that is driving your emotional response to the pictures you are seeing.’ When it works, there’s a synaesthesia in theatre that somehow allows you to hear pictures when you’re watching ‘The Tempest’, and see music when you listen to the Verwandlungsmusik of ‘Parsifal’.”
I don’t need to tell you to cast your eyes over the designs on these pages. You’ve been doing it for the last few minutes. These words can hardly compete with those colours and textures. Their delicacy, intensity, complexity, scope; the easy shifts from the sublime to the larky. Visions of a world beyond this one, held here, briefly, in structures built by Es Devlin out of fabric, steel and neon. Visions to bring the angels of Peckham down from the trees.
Top The Damien Hirst that Devlin used for the Olympic Closing ceremony in 2012
Above Es Devlin
Matthew Sweet presents BBC Radio 3's "Free Thinking". He is the author of "The West End Front"
Portraits David Ellis
Photographs Royal Opera House, Getty