Dra­matic im­pact

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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Dramatic Impact -

‘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’

Pho­to­graph by Ben Mur­phy

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

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