Julius Caesar – Five Minutes with the Set Designer

With Julius Caesar rehearsals well under way, we interviewed the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Set Designer Sarah Mercade to get an insight into the aesthetic of the show.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role on Julius Caesar?
My name’s Sarah, I’m the set designer. I’m currently completing the MA in Professional Theatre Design at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and this production is my last major design as part of the course – quite an opportunity! My background is in costume; I worked as a designer and supervisor for 4 years before making the decision to return to training and make the leap into set design, something I’ve always wanted to do. My first set design as part of the course was for the Wardrobe Theatre – the text demanded something minimal, and it was very much on a fringe budget, so I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to design something on a very different scale at the Bristol Old Vic.

What has inspired your set design?
We wanted the space to feel contemporary, but also to retain the sense of weight, scale and drama of Ancient Rome. I looked at the modernist designs of Edward Gordon Craig and Apier as inspiration, particularly in terms of how these bold sets create potential for dramatic lighting, which I’m really excited to see come to life in our production in the hands of our brilliant lighting designer Paul Pyant. I also did a lot of research into contemporary public spaces, as well as parliaments across the world to ground the design in reality. It was really fascinating to learn about the design of different parliaments and how certain seating configurations are more conducive to either democracy or dictatorship.

What was the most challenging part of your set design?
It’s amazing to design for a stage like the Bristol Old Vic, which has so much history and character, but that definitely throws up its own challenges! The building is inherently asymmetric, and the shape of the auditorium, though beautiful, is quite a challenge in terms of sight lines. You have a vast stage to play with, and the temptation is to use the whole depth, but not everyone in the audience will benefit from any design going on upstage, so the challenge is to use the space effectively and frame the action in such a way that no one misses any key moments.

What is it like working with Director Simon Dormandy?
Simon has a lot of energy and exciting ideas, and his knowledge of the play is immense! He came to the process with a very clear sense that he wanted the production to take place in Italy in an absolutely contemporary political world. The design period was quite brief so this framework was very helpful to have as a starting point, as there are infinite directions you can go in with Shakespeare. We went through quite a few incarnations of the design, but landed on something that we both believe serves the text well and will be an exciting space to see the action play out on.

Do you think the story of Julius Caesar is still relevant today?
Absolutely, so many parallels can be drawn between the events of the play and the current political landscape, from Labour party in-fighting to the promise and perils of populism, so there’s plenty that audiences will recognise. We open the day after the general election, so who knows, depending on how the vote goes there might be as much unrest on the streets of Bristol as there will be on the stage.

What is it like working on a show created by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic?
It’s so exciting to be part of such a unique collaboration, and have the chance to work with people I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have had the opportunity to. Everyone at Bristol Old Vic has been so enthusiastic and supportive. It’s been brilliant to have support from a team with so much experience and expertise, and have the chance to learn from that.

What has been the best part of working on this production so far?
You sometimes come up with these crazy ideas as a designer, and the hope is that someone a lot cleverer than you will find a way to make what’s in your brain possible in reality. Not wanting to give too many spoilers, but as Rome descends into chaos we wanted to start to damage and destroy the set which is otherwise quite clean and minimal, and thought graffiti would be a good way to start that process. The catch is any graffiti would need to be completely removed between performances so we needed to find a product which would leave no trace. Lots of tests with different products were done and we landed on a magic combination that works, so that idea becoming something achievable has definitely been the highlight for me so far.

Building on the brilliant success of King Lear in 2016, we reunite with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to present Shakespeare’s riveting political drama Julius Caesar this June. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

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