Height restrictions and see-through chairs: staging Chichester's very first in-the-round production
Set designer Simon Higlett on the challenges of mounting the first in-the-round production at Chichester Festival Theatre
The Norman Conquests is the first time a production has been staged in-the-round in the Chichester Festival Theatre's 50-year history. I've done 10 years of work at Chichester, on and off. It's a fantastic space to work in – even though it's not really designed for scenery! It's a big epic space and all it really needs is an actor in the middle of the stage.
The Norman Conquests are set in a run-down Victorian rectory – a living room, a dining room and a garden. I had done the plays before at Birmingham Rep, which is a traditional proscenium space. There I brought the whole thing forward, into the stalls, and built the entire rectory on a huge revolve. But it became a show about the set, and I really didn't want to do that again. So I re-read the plays – and I noticed of course that in Alan Ayckbourn's own theatre in Scarborough, where they were first done, it was in-the-round. So I thought, oh that's the obvious thing to do. I'm a huge fan of in-the-round, because it makes you design the play rather than the set.
In-the-round makes you design the play rather than the set
The director, Blanche McIntyre, was up for the idea, and Daniel Evans and Rachel Tackley, Chichester's artistic and executive directors, were persuaded relatively quickly too. But then you have to work out how you do it logistically in an auditorium that's never been set up that way before. We've removed the back row of the existing seats to create a new bank of Terrace Seating on what would normally be the rear part of the stage – so the seats all match and it looks like part of the auditorium.
The other advantage is that the rooms can be the right size and I don't have to create walls. It's such a beautifully written piece; you want to concentrate on the story and the characters without having to think what the wallpaper looks like. It's all about the interaction of the characters and it's very funny.
I googled 'Victorian rectories for sale' and based the design on a real house
But despite not having physical walls, a sense of reality is still important. I googled 'Victorian rectories for sale' and based the design on a real house, so the footprints of the rooms are correct. We're still setting it in the 1970s, but the house has been in the family for ages so the furniture has a Victorian look to it. None of the characters are very fashionable – except maybe Ruth, Norman's wife – so we don't have lots of flares and platform shoes.
In-the-round staging places specific demands on the furniture. It has to have low backs: chaises, pouffes, ottomans. You can't have a wing chair or an ordinary sideboard because it's too high and will block the view; there's a maximum height of about 60cm for a piece of furniture. Chair backs must be see-through.
We're lucky enough to have a props buyer who can go off searching antiques fairs for suitable pieces. There's an amazing place near Arundel called the Vinery which is full of 'brown furniture'. And there is good old eBay. We audition bits of furniture! Buy them and try them, but until you get them on the stage, you might not know if they will work. We do a lot of reducing the heights of legs on furniture and building up cushions. It's hard work but good fun.
The Norman Conquests runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 28 October.