Designer Andrew D Edwards describes the process of translating The Life and Times of Fanny Hill to the stage: from making boudoirs out of boxes to acknowledging the harsh realities of history.
What’s it been like to work on The Life and Times of Fanny Hill?
Designing for …Fanny Hill is a gift. As a designer, what makes a project attractive is when you get a great space and a story that complement each other, as these do. This is a really interesting piece, which works so well for Bristol Old Vic. The intimacy of this theatre and what April de Angelis, the writer, has created connect together beautifully.
What’s it like working with Director Michael Oakley?
Michael always creates a great environment to work in. It was the same on Playhouse Creatures, our last production together. There is such a good bond between the creative team and the actors which means ideas flow freely. I think this is always key when working as part of a production.
How have you both approached the design of the play?
Michael originally suggested the idea of setting it on the dockside and it has developed from there really. It was then about finding a way to develop the ideas to allow us to follow the story to its different locations. What I’ve tried to do with the design is not get in the way of the narrative but locate it somewhere neutral and then embrace a little bit of what’s going on at the time. For example, depicting the sense of a growing city in the use of the architectural arches, and representing the importance of international trade in the 18th Century with docks and the crates. Then, the question was how to be imaginative with the initial setting of a dockside. What could be in the crates? How could they become a location? That has been the fun of designing this show, creating elements of the unexpected. Something Michael and I have always hoped is that people won’t be expecting to see Fanny Hill sitting on wooden crates beside the docks. We think they’ll expect to see her in lavish boudoirs. But it’s not that show and that’s not what we set out to do.
How do you think audiences will react when the set is revealed?
I hope it will be a surprise. I want them to get an atmosphere of the Bristol docks, this stunning 18th-century theatre, and how little it has all changed. A design should never overpower a play, and what we’ve created should give the actors a platform to tell their story rather than impose upon it. In some sense it is a busy design, but it’s also quite simple in its elements, the crates and the scaffolding. I think what they see will be quite unexpected.
The Life and Times of Fanny Hill has been adapted from John Cleland’s novel by April de Angelis. How have you responded to April’s writing?
April has created a freedom within the text and found a way to tell the episodes and connect them with an audience. For me, what she does so well is to effortlessly draw you inithout you really knowing. You’re watching a play which you’re enjoying and laughing at,hen you drift into the darker side of reality for these women; what women went through, how harsh it was at the time, and then the realisation that things haven’t really changed that much today. It’s the subtlety in which she does this that I find fascinating. I have tried to respond to that, and give the design flexibility so the stories can be told.
Did you have any strong influences for the design of …Fanny Hill?
No, not really! There wasn’t a specific visual inspiration for this design that I’d seen, it was more about the location and how we could use this for the set and, of course, getting the costumes right for the period. For me, designing for the stage is like creating a painting or sculpture. When you design it, you should never expect an audience to interpret it the way you do or have the same vision of it. And, honestly, I don’t think I ever want them to. I would much rather make something they discover for themselves. If they knew why I wanted it to be that way, it wouldn’t leave it open to their interpretations. I think people should be allowed to take what they want from a piece of theatre.
What’s been the biggest challenge in designing …Fanny Hill?
There haven’t really been any challenges, mostly because working with Michael is such a joy! He’s very open minded and incredibly pragmatic, meaning everything has slotted intolace. I think that is what has made it an exciting project to work on. Everything just feels right, and nothing has really got in the way of the design or the play. Even once the design was finalised, Michael would come to me and say, for example, “we need someone hoisted up for this sex scene” and with a few adjustments to the design we were able to make it work; the anatomy of the set has given us so much flexibility.
Why do you think audiences should see …Fanny Hill?
I think it is a really important story about women. I love the history of it and the insight into what it was like for people then. Of course you’ll get the sex, which is fun and witty, and that’s a good enough reason to come. But it’s not just a jolly romp, it’s actually an intimate and poignant story. It’s not just full of innuendos. It’s something more than that, something important for those women, and women today, and that’s what makes April’s writing so special.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently designing Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London, which goes into rehearsals in February. Then, after that it’s straight to Paris for The House of Bernarda Alba at The Comédie-Française in April.
The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
Bristol Old Vic Theatre
5 Feb-7 Mar