integral. Design has probably become more than ever a significant part of his productions: though the (‘itizens' co-productions under the
triumvirate directorshipof llavergal. l’row se and MacDonald have nearly always been strongly defined by their design. the process ofcollaboration allowing l’rowse both a freedom and a security that is probably rarely available to designers. '()ne ofthe things that kept me working here was the close collaboration. I hope it will always be there. I do think that what does make this theatre a bit different from others is a respect for designers. There is a terrible lack of respect for design in theatre in general in this country. which is why the standard of design can be so bad. I think design should be part of the whole. l'ntil design has become structurally part of the whole deal and not just decorative. we're never going to express a play fully and the design won’t be up to continental standards.‘
‘l‘liis is clearly the thinking behind the immense visual impact of The Duchess will/um. produced by l’rowse for the l’etherlu'idge. .\lcl\'ellen group at the National ’l‘heatre. which had The Observer proclaiming ‘( ilasgow Style (‘omes to London‘ and The (iuurdum drama critic. .‘ylichael Billington. numbering Prowse amongst the foremost in what he observes to be a new movement in British theatre. in which design is in the ascendancy. For all the value of uniformity of intent and intensity of visual impact. however. there is clearly the possibility that spectacular design at best might pie-state too much of the sub-text of the play. at worst dominating it at the expense ofthe acting. 'l‘his is a point about which Billington. writing in The (hum/run. feels strongly: ‘My hunch is that. at the moment we are living through a period of Designers‘ theatre. in which people are attracted to the
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for lack ofcontent.’
He was referring more to the technical virtuosity of Starlight [iv/Hess and Mutiny than to the sepulchral effectiveness of The Duchess ol'llulﬁ. Nonetheless. there have certainly been times when the (‘itizens‘ have been criticised for mounting visually dazzling production that helped disguise acting of uneven quality. lt‘s a long argument. and in throwaway mood. l’rowse can concede a little to the opposition’s line: ‘A lot of theatres aren't that interested in design —l don't think they see it as necessary to the theatre-going experience. And I'm not all that sure that they’re wrong really. I‘ve seen at least two shows in my time which I thought were marvellous — and both of them had god-awful designs.‘
So much for theory. In practice. however. l’rowse's Duchess willful/i seemed to offer most people the right degree of unity. Jacobean Revenge tragedy. is one ofthe areas to which l’rowse returns again and again. With its cynical and extreme portrayal of facades in life it seems to lend itselfto his strong. visually themed productions. I imagined then that the plays he is most drawn to are those that suggest themselves immediately visually to him‘.’ ‘.\'o. they aren't actually. It's often the social world of the play. or the internal. emotional world that is something that I want to do. and after that it becomes visual. I suppose ifl want to do it enough then it won't be long before it becomes visual. But it's often not visual at first.‘
There do seem to be certain constants that recur in some of his designs: stark contrasts. sometimes unashamed splendour and architectural grandeur balanced against spaciousness: ‘What has always interested me is the manipulation ofspace. The thing I‘m best at is architecture. I tend to see things architecturally. Actually I would quite have liked to do
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architecture in a way. it‘s just that I never did. ldidn't even know I had an architectural bent. really. until I started doing this.‘
Prowse went to the Slade School of Art. and then launched straight into theatre design. designing for ballet and opera as well as drama. Yet it seems to be the one medium in which he is not employed that is his first love. ‘I love cinema. All my heroes are film directors.‘ Among them he numbers Visconti. Welles and Spielberg — ‘and I‘m full of admiration for somebody like Peter (irecnaway. who sort of hurled himselfonto that very middle-class. money-orientated world and came out of it so originally with The Draughtsnum 's ( '(mlruct. 'l’hat he was able to chisel that out of the film industry! I was intrigued by it — it was very nice to go to the cinema and be spoken down to really. It was actually the director saying ‘You'll never follow this”. and I thought. sod this for a laugh. I'm going to follow it. and I did. It was actually quite easy to work out if you really concentrated — but it demanded that. and it kept your interest. I really do admire him for making such a thing possible. given the restrictions.‘
l’ilm. however. seems to be an area he doesn't ever see himselftaking on ‘I think I‘m a bit too old now to learn how to do it. and I think the world of it rather terrifies me‘ — it is with the possibilities of theatre that he seems to want to stay. homing in this time on an irreverent fifteenth-century Spanish play of not inconsiderable length by Fernando de Rojas. ‘What I like about it is that it takes a few people and manages to create a whole community. In quite an intimate way it manages to capture a whole society. The really interesting thing though is that it‘s very like Romeo (nu/Juliet. only seen from the point of view ofthe nurse.‘
Which sounds graphic enough. And before Shakespeare could loom onto the horizon. and despite the clock still standing at ten to four. it was time to be shifting on.
Heartbreak House Citizens‘ Theatre. 1985
Left. Prowse‘s realisation ol Shaw's apocalyptic mood was critically acclaimed.
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10 The List 10- 23 January