SCOTS QUAIR FEATURE —
surge of the angry-era Royal Court in the late 50$, Jacobs approached Brook just as he was announcing his plans to take a group of actors through an exploratory three-month rehearsal. He liked her portfolio and took her on for what became 1964’s Theatre of Cruelty season. ‘It was a huge leap for me because he knew what he was doing but I had no idea what 1 was doing,’ says Jacobs 30 years on. ‘Everything he asked me to do I just did without understanding why, and somehow, because my instincts were right, I got by and gradually caught up. Eventually I was able to design some of the major productions that he did with the Royal Shakespeare.’
Indeed, praised by Brook for her ‘uniqueness’ and ‘rich creativity’, Jacobs went on to design landmark productions, including the Marat/Sade, US and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been described as ‘the most inﬂuential Shakespearian production of the post-war period, perhaps of the century.’ Performed in a three-walled box, not unlike a brilliant-white squash court, A Midsummer Night's Dream took its imagery from the circus and the acrobat. But as one critic recently pointed out, the production ‘relied not on the scenic tricks of the theatre but on the athletic tricks of the performer’ and for all the trapezes and satin costumes. it was the actors, not the set. who created the imagery — ‘the secret of the white box was its emptiness, its power to call forth the imagination’.
And so it is with Jacobs’ design for TAG’s adaptation of the Scots Quair trilogy, showing in the International Festival, and no doubt also with her design for Paines Plough’s Crossﬁre, showing on the Fringe. ln TAG’s opening instal- ment, Sunset Song, Jacobs rolls a simple earth- coloured floorcloth, like a ploughed ﬁeld, across an undulating stage, while a silk canopy flutters sky-like above. ‘It seemed like the novel was mostly about landscape and what happens under the sky.’ she explains about the celebrated rural Aberdeenshire tale set at the start of the First World War I. ‘The kind of landscape that would allow for ensemble playing. It’s endlessly ﬂuid: you just put two chairs in the right light and you have a very intimate, rural farmhouse room; then open the whole thing up and you’re out and up on the hills.’
Thanks to the modest, unintrusive nature of Jacobs’ set, the actors and musicians in Tony Graham’s sophisticated production are free to ‘call forth’ our imagination in a way that strikes a true theatrical parallel with the artistic vision of the novel. This will equally be the case in the as-yet-unseen Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, where Jacobs, ﬁrst. strips off the floorcloth to reveal black etchings suggestive of cobble stones and wood-block paintings and second, introduces upright posts to suggest the vertical world of the big city. ‘That is what design is about,’ says Jacobs, whose post-Brook career has spanned everything from off-Broadway theatre to Wembley Arena opera. ‘lt’s about making that kind of minimalism right. In other words, if you find exactly the right chair, the right table, the right light, you can create some- thing that reminds you of an old photograph or an old painting or a particular quality of some- thing you might have known in your childhood. It’s about understanding that everything we
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‘Peter Brook trusts the material to
tell him what to do and finally does
look at is associative and you have to pull together the right tiny details to make it complete. It has to be minimal if you want to be fluid, especially in this kind of piece where you go in a very musical way from one fragment to another.’
Jacobs is quite at home with the idea that as a designer her job is to serve the production, even though she has strong ambitions to become a director herself. She is, she says, bursting with ideas for adaptations, translations and plays and is lined-up to co-direct a piece of dance-theatre in the spring. This is consistent with a career in which she has continu- ally set herself creative challenges, be that working with avant-garders Joseph Chaikin or Richard Foreman in New York, or forcing herself back into British fringe theatre despite her establishment credentials. Professionally she might have set off on her own path once Peter Brook moved to the Bouffes du Nord (a space that she loved but would have provided her with little to do beyond choosing the colour of the sand), but she still keeps in touch with him and has lost none of her admiration for his theatrical philosophy.
‘Always question everything and never settle on anything until you’ve tried every way around.’ she says ‘You have to keep your nerve until the very last minute. It will be self-evident what you have to do if you explore in the tight open-minded way. This frightens a lot of people; they like to go in with a big stick and have a concept, but with Peter it’s exactly the opposite. He trusts the material to tell him what to do and ﬁnally he does something very simple which reveals the material in a very honest way. [I’ll be a clean, clear revelation of what the material is about. I feel tremendous respect for that kind of humility.’ C]
A Scots Quair (Festival) TAG Theatre Company, Assembly Hall, 225 5756, l 7Aug—4 Sept, 7.30pm, £5—£12. The three plays are shown in rotation and can be seen together on every Saturday of the run.
Crossﬁre (Fringe) Paines Plough, Traverse Theatre (Venue I5) 228 1404, 24 Aug-4 Sept, various times, £8 (£5).
Maln Plcture: Sally Jacobs' slmple earth-coloured floorclotb tor Sunset Song. Above: Palnes Plough's
Crossﬁre. Below: Jacobs‘ circus deslgn for Peter Brook's
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970); and bottom, TAG's Sunset Song beneath a fluttering sllk canopy.
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The List 13—19 August 199319