Let's Talk About Sets: Colin Richmond on Vice Versa

As Phil Porter’s raucous new play based on Plautus’ Roman comedies opens, designer Colin Richmond explains how he came to the ’70s-esque Roman designs

Phil Porter's very fresh take on the comedy stylings of Plautus with Vice Versa gave us the opportunity to plunder the depths of the Roman farce genre without much restriction. Sondheim’s '70s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Frankie Howerd’s comedic turn in the BBC’s Up Pompeii! and more recently the ITV series Plebs were our very base starting points initially.

While Phil's version is very much rooted in the world of ancient Rome, its language is so fresh it begs for anarchy in its visualisation. Starting with our feet planted very much in the soil of ancient Rome we felt free to add modern anachronistic touches throughout the process. Endlessly twisting the world to make a new one where every element belongs comfortably together in the environment he had created so beautifully.

A costume drawing for Vice Versa
A costume drawing for Vice Versa
© Colin Richmond

Costume fittings have been open discussions based on initial drawings, used as a tool for talking and a spring board for ideas. A '70s take on Grecian/ Roman times was more than a help in anchoring our ideas. This inspired fabric choices, hairstyles, makeup, jewellery, cuts and shapes of garments, and finishing details, moreover.

Vice Versa sends itself up more often than not, it is unashamedly self-aware in its story telling much in the way Up Pompeii! was. In this essence, the set also pokes fun at itself. A series of pantomime style cloths create our mis-en-scene, the classic neighbouring doors with ancient Rome rambling off into the distance and using the full height of the Swan theatre we create Roman rooftops and balconies for the action to flow as free as possible. Again, another layer of artifice to play with within the comedy.

Every element hopefully adds to a heady mix of tongue in cheek comedy which feels fresh but very welcomingly familiar.

By Colin Richmond

Vice Versa runs at the Swan Theatre in Stratford from 18 May to 9 September.