After helping to create the astonishing poppies installation that drew millions to the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War, theatre designer Tom Piper returned to the stage. Alastair Sooke meets him as he works on a new production of Tchaik
‘Various people in the art world, for whom “populism” is a dirty word, said, “Well, it’s not a work of art, because it was made by a potter and a theatre designer”’
Most of the time, I feel I’m teetering on the edge of disaster,’ says the 51-year-old British theatre designer Tom Piper, smiling anxiously. Gangly and difdent, Piper looks at me intensely, while one of his hands toys with his thinning hair. Tufts of it stand erect, like poppy stalks swaying in a feld.
We are sitting in a costumier’s in north London, where Piper has been overseeing f itt ings for a new product ion of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, which he is designing. It is due to premiere next month at Garsington Opera, the annual festival held in a country estate in the Chiltern Hills.
‘Today I’ve been going up and down the rails, looking for waistcoats,’ Piper tells me. In particular, he was hunting for waistcoats that could, conceivably, have been worn by 19thcentury Russian peasants. ‘A lot of work goes into making clothing look authentically broken down,’ he says. ‘It costs as much to hire clothes for a peasant as it does for a princess.’
Most of the members of the opera’s cast of almost 50 will require three diferent costumes during each performance. Piper, who is working under the director Michael Boyd, the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company with whom he has collaborated extensively in the past, is responsible for every single outft.
The whole process sounds remarkably time-consuming and stressful. ‘Yes, it can be,’ he says, fondling his hair again. ‘But we will get it done.’
Few would doubt him. Within the world of British theatre, Piper is known as Boyd’s softly spoken sidekick. They frst worked together in 1991 in Glasgow, where Boyd, who is nine years older than Piper, was running the Tron Theatre.
‘I really liked the smell of his work,’ recalls Boyd, who collaborated with Piper on another opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, at the Roundhouse in London last year. ‘So I put him through the purgatorial apprenticeship of designing a pantomime [ Jack
and the Beanstalk]. He was very inventive, and we just kept working together.’
In 2004, a year after he had assumed control of the RSC, Boyd elevated Piper to ‘associate’, or in-house, designer within the organisation. Until Boyd stepped down as artistic director in 2012, he and Piper collaborated on many memorable
productions – including an ambitious staging of eight of Shakespeare’s histor y plays as a single ‘cycle’.
During that time, Piper earned a reputation as a talented but self-efacing designer, whose austere, st r ipped-back set s, which Boyd describes as ‘sculptural architecture’, incorporated natural materials, such as wood, as well as weathering steel.
‘Piper was Boyd’s unobtrusive nuts-and-bolts man,’ says the Telegraph’s theatre critic, Dominic Cavendish. ‘His designs didn’t insistently have a wow factor – but sometimes the good stuf is what you don’t particularly notice.’
More recently, though, Piper has been noticed like never before. In 2014 he left his associate role at the RSC and won widespread recognition, far beyond his former employer’s heartland of Stratford upon Avon, for his involvement in a single project: a temporary art installation, marking the centenary of the First World War, called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.
To the millions who saw this extraordinary work during the four months it was on display, it was known, simply, as ‘the poppies’ at the Tower of London.
Piper didn’t come up with the idea of flling the Tower’s moat with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British military fatality during the war: that was dreamt up by a ceramic artist from Derbyshire called Paul Cummins. But once Cummins’s proposal had been green-lit, Piper was brought on board as its ‘designer’. ‘My initial role was to be a facilitator of Paul’s idea,’ Piper recalls. ‘It was meant to be a three-week job.’
To begin with, Piper concerned himself with logistical details: ‘Paul’s early prototypes were ver y beautif ul, but the red wasn’t st rong enough,’ he says. Also, he realised that if the poppies were only placed within the moat, their overall visual impact would be diminished.
Accordingly, he explored ways to relate the poppies to the building itself. To this end, he commissioned scafolding-like structures that could support thousands of poppies, so that the fowers would appear to fow down the Tower’s walls and swoop up into the air.
Two of these dramatic ‘sculptures’ were subsequently bought: one by the Backstage Trust, the other by Clore Dufeld Foundation. They are now touring Britain until 2018. Weeping
Window, which created the illusion of poppies tumbling from one of the Tower’s windows, is cur rent ly inst a lled on t he west end of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.
‘Paul and I brought two clear metaphors to the piece,’ Piper says. ‘You had the individual poppy as a soldier, and you had the poppy as a liquid: a fowing blood-like substance, which poured out of the building. The collaboration of those two metaphors enhanced it and made it work.’
The original plan was to ‘plant’ the poppies over three weeks, before unveiling them during a royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. This, Piper says, was ‘unrealistic’.
So he came up with a solution: to stagger the planting over several months, leading up to Armistice Day. To assist with this, the Tower recruited 30,000 volunteers. Despite all the manpower, though, planting the poppies was still manic. ‘We had to plant about 80,000 every week,’ Piper recalls.
For him, though, the ongoing spectacle was a big part of the installation’s success. ‘In a sense, the volunteers were performing,’ he explains. ‘The whole thing had a natural, fowing quality. Grass grew up through it. Birds were fying around. It wasn’t like the formal memorials in Flanders – beautiful, but very ordered.’
The Tower enhanced the sense of drama by initiating something called the ‘roll of honour’: a list of names of Commonwealth troops killed during the war, read out by various people (from Beefeaters to Helen Mirren), every day at sunset. ‘I did it once,’ Piper says. ‘I stood on a little mound within the poppies, in front of a few thousand people, and read out 180 names, before a bugler played the Last Post.’ His voice trembles with emotion. ‘It was very moving.’
Almost by stealth, the poppies became the nation’s most important memorial to the First World War: a big splash of red, sig nif ying Britain’s heart. Dignitaries and politicians lined up to pay their respects, including Nigel Farage. When he visited the installation in November, the Ukip leader was photographed wiping away tears. ‘That was ridiculous,’ Piper says.
The fnal poppy was put in place at 11am on November 11. ‘The poppies only reached stillness for one day, which was rather beautiful,’ Piper
‘I stood on a little mound within the poppies and read out 180 names, before a bugler played the Last Post. It was very moving’
Right Tom Piper photographed in April at Wormsley, where Eugene Onegin will be performed as part of this year’s Garsington Opera festival. Above A set model and sketch for the opera
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (2014), designed by Paul Cummins with Piper