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Electra, Oresteia and an execution: the daring designs of Hildegard Bechtler – in pictures | Stage

‘You never know anything, you can only do your best.” Hildegard Bechtler is modest, but this soft-spoken, keen-eyed designer has created a host of memorable productions. Raised in Stuttgart, Bechtler moved to London in 1970, initially to train in fine art. She then worked in film, and likes the idea that she brings an outsider’s eye to British theatre. “Being a designer is constantly changing, depending on the people you work with,” she says. “Ideally, you forget everything. Collaborators are crucial, and the skill of the director is in creating the team. I’ve only had one bad experience with a director in my 30-odd years.”

Electra

Hildegard Bechtler in her studio in 2013.



Bechtler’s 1988 production with Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw of Sophocles’s tragedy for the RSC began a collaboration that continued for a decade.

“I wasn’t really familiar with Deborah’s work, but I liked the way she talked. When she asked me about Electra, I had just turned down a film I had been offered. It was a pivotal decision, and very good timing! It led to a very intense 10-year working relationship with her and Fiona.”

Natasha Parry as Clytemnestra and Fiona Shaw as Electra at The Pit



  • Natasha Parry as Clytemnestra and Fiona Shaw as Electra at the Pit, Barbican, London, in 1988. Photograph: Neil Libbert

“One of the first things Fiona said was that she might smoke cigarettes, and Deborah said she saw rusty containers. So that immediately means you will not have to go to classical Greece! That was maybe the only conversation we had before I came up with some suggestions. It wasn’t based on big discussions or dissecting the text. It was more an instinctive arrival at something unfathomable.”

“Like many people, I had been using the escalators at King’s Cross station after the tube fire, and was very affected by how it still appeared burned. For Electra, I had the idea of the water, ash and an altar. It was to do with essential elements – I made the walls of this enclosed prison courtyard the colour of ash. The door at the back was real metal, which gave great sound possibilities. And there was a channel of water running to the front of the stage, which eventually ran red with blood.”

“I wanted Electra to be dressed in black and showing quite a lot of skin. Fiona cut her hair very short. She looked amazing. She was doing so much physical work, crouching and standing. We cut her dress on one side so that one thigh was exposed. It was like self-harming.”

Scenes from an Execution

Scenes from an Execution. Stage design by Hildegard Bechtler



Shaw starred in Howard Barker’s play about a fictional Renaissance painter, directed by Tom Cairns, at the National Theatre, London, in 2012.

“Fiona is the only actor I’ve come across who would be happy to wait till the midnight hour to confirm her costume. Even in previews, we didn’t know if she would wear shoes in the last scene. It’s brave.”

Draft storyboard for Scenes from an Execution



“I never even thought of showing the painting that the artist is working on. I had an early sense that the Lyttelton proscenium was her frame. The audience looked through the frame and she looked back at us. It took for ever. I kept all of the models, to remind myself how many structures you can build.”

“It wasn’t a very technical show. It was spare, with modern materials and smooth, simple walls: wood, plastic and metal. We had a small revolve to move a wall into different perspectives, and structures to bring Fiona up to another level for a scene and then very simply move her down again. I’m still thrilled to think of it.”

Phoebe Nicholls as Rivera and Fiona Shaw as Galactia in Scenes from an Execution.



  • Phoebe Nicholls as Rivera and Fiona Shaw as Galactia at the National theatre, London, in 2012. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“On the first night there was a technical mistake – Fiona was supposed to move down but the whole thing came to a standstill. She was suspended in space. Your heart goes insane, but I couldn’t leave the audience because I wasn’t sitting at the end of a row. You have to see the funny side. It’s not life and death – it’s show business.”

Oresteia

Oresteia at the Almeida.



Bechtler’s ongoing collaboration with Robert Icke began with his version of the trilogy by Aeschylus at London’s Almeida in 2015.

“I hadn’t seen much of Rob’s work, but I sensed something during one of our first conversations. One of the main things we talked about was family. When I think of a German or Italian family especially, I think about sitting around a table and eating together. That was the starting point. I knew the table had to be meaningful, as it was almost the only furniture. There was a nod to Greece in the slightly marble-like material, architectural but built into the Almeida’s own brick.”

Oresteia at the Almeida.



“Our innovation was the ‘electric’ glass, which we could make opaque or transparent at the flick of a switch. I don’t know of a show that had used it before. We felt strongly about looking through to see corridors, other spaces, opening to the bath or the altar. We needed this glass to stage Iphigenia’s death as brutally and shockingly as possible. We took a huge risk – the glassalmost ate the whole budget, so we had to commit to it. But lots of people use it now.”

Oresteia at the Almeida



“My drafts of the Oresteia included a large video screen. We never used it in this production, but it became completely right for Hamlet at the Almeida. There’s talk of us combining the Oresteia and Hamlet in one world, and making it site-specific to the Armory in New York, which would be an amazing challenge.”

Oedipus

Oedipus, directed by Robert Icke.



Bechtler and Icke’s version of Sophocles’s tragedy premiered at the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam in 2018 and was staged at the Edinburgh festival in 2019.

“Our Oedipus is a politician on election night. We approached the play as being about the feeling that something was coming to an end, that it felt worn out and tired. I came up with an idea where we would have the stage completely filled with the remnants of the old world. It would be packed up during the play, and we’d end up with nothing. When we took the design sketch to the theatre in Amsterdam, we were told that we had massively overestimated our budget! So, literally back to the drawing board. We ended up doing the opposite.”

An early model of the set design for Oedipus



Oedipus version 2 model shot



“Fortunately, we were with the Toneelgroep company, which has been together for so many years, doing amazing work. It was a revelation. Hans Kesting as Oedipus – what a phenomenon, what a collaborator.”

The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel at Salzburger Festspiele, 2016.



This opera by Thomas Adès, based on Luis Buñuel’s film, was directed by Tom Cairns at Salzburg in 2016, before travelling to New York and London.

“I’d never designed a contemporary opera on such a big scale. It had to work for the Met in New York, Covent Garden and Salzburg, which have very different prosceniums. The design ended up so simple purely because it went through countless work. I considered far more architectural, enclosed spaces.”

A model of the set design for The Exterminating Angel



“It was the first time I worked with a company of international singers who not only rehearsed together for weeks, but did so on the built set. They were like an ensemble rehearsing a play.”

“Because the principals could never be off stage, the revolve was used to make sure we always got the action closest to where we needed it. The relevant action always had to be in focus. We used it like a camera to create a closeup. It felt disorienting and queasy, because our big arch on the stage moved independently. It was very creepy.”

The Exterminating Angel at Salzburger Festspiele 2016.



“We had to make identical versions of each of the characters’ couture-type costumes because they are totally destroyed during the story. We had them made in advance so the singers could wear them in rehearsal and then break them down in the way each felt they should.”

The Damnation of Faust

The Damnation of Faust, directed by Terry Gilliam and performed by the English National Opera, 2011.



Bechtler and Terry Gilliam staged Berlioz’s unwieldy opera for ENO at London’s Coliseum in 2011.

“I knew Terry a little bit socially, because my husband, Bill Paterson, was in some of his films, but he didn’t know I was a stage designer. When ENO brought us together, I thought it was a risky idea, because he’s a very distinctive and visual film director. But it became a significant collaboration for me.”

Model storyboard for The Damnation of Faust



“The opera is famously difficult to stage. Terry’s version was set in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. I grew up in Stuttgart in the 50s and left in 1970 because I felt burdened by that history. So this was a very important project for me.”

“Working with Terry, I was forced in a direction I would never have gone in. Although you can have any concept you like, opera has rigid musical demands and timings. Unlike film, you can’t simply edit out the bits you don’t like! Terry grasped this, and I would never have produced anything like it with someone else. He was very knowledgeable and incredibly respectful, letting me bring all the visuals to him. The joy of the opera was to work with a great collaborator.”

The Almeida’s production of The Doctor, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, is at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, 20 April-11 July 2020.

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