Let's Talk About Sets: Nicolai Hart-Hansen on The Pulverised
The designer of Alexandra Badea's play about globalisation on creating a space that felt like a catastrophe had hit it
When I first read Alexandra Badeas' extraordinary play The Pulverised it hit me like a brick. It's a piece of such rawness in themes, and beauty in its execution and use of language. It creates a complete world of its own in your mind. It's the kind of writing I love the most: pieces that aren't prescriptive in terms of settings. It's an abstract drawing on reality.
I am naturally drawn to spaces that are neutral, anonymous and in some ways generic. Spaces that are somehow the same wherever in the world you are - spaces that don't really have a personality. They fascinate me. How did these spaces - offices, hospitals, waiting rooms - get to look like this? In a theatre context, the performer becomes the primary factor. There is nothing in that space that has an imprint of an individual.
When starting the design process, I looked into public spaces: buildings and sites that had been affected by some sort of catastrophe. Whether it be affected by man, or nature. Ground Zero, the volcano eruptions of Mount Sinabung, Aleppo, tsunamis, any exterior factor that has destroyed and erupted someone's life in some way or the other.
Drawing on those visuals I wanted to create an abstract space, an aftermath that still had traces of a man-made space that was generic, non-domestic and impersonal, such as an office or a factory - the world in which the characters in The Pulverised inhabit. I also very much wanted us to feel like we were in the middle of an eruption. Something unsettling has happened, and is still underway. I wanted some kind of transformation throughout. A wall is starting to blow away, we literally have debris hanging above us.
I go straight from research to modelmaking, it's the best way for me, and I work with lighting straight away. Lighting is very important to me. One might say it always is for a set designer, but I too often find lighting a layer that has been added. In my studio, I constantly take pictures with lighting to see how it affects the work throughout the process. I work with shadows a lot, and I also collaborate with the lighting designer at the very early stages if possible.
I also create a playlist for myself with music and sounds to work with. It feeds my work and the world I am creating. For The Pulverised I used Steve Reich and Aphex Twin.
My inspirations mostly come from fine art, not from theatre, but with this piece I wanted it to have a very strong sense of immersion. I wanted it to have the feeling of an art installation, I wanted to put the audience right in there and feel slightly like they were in a situation they can't do anything about. The world around them is collapsing. And they are possibly to blame for the larger picture
I think great theatre should challenge and leave more questions than it answers. I would hope that this piece hits the audience like a brick, like it did with me when I first read it.
By Nicolai Hart-Hansen
The Pulverised runs at the Arcola Theatre until 27 May.