''WE want to put the audience in prison.'' That was the
director Trevor Nunn's first comment when he enlisted the
scenic artist Richard Hoover to design the set for the world
premiere of Tennessee Williams's ''Not About Nightingales'' at
the Royal National Theater in London.
And, indeed, the striking
environmental set that Mr. Hoover created for the production,
currently at Circle in the Square on Broadway, immediately
affects how audiences experience Williams's harrowing play.
Based on a true story, ''Not
About Nightingales'' depicts a prison hunger strike that
results in four inmates getting roasted alive in a
steam-filled torture chamber known as Klondike. On the stage,
a two-tier cold-steel cellblock stares across a clanging
grated floor at the warden's office, which consists entirely
of metallic gray fixtures.
The set itself represents a
physical confrontation as stark and unyielding as the showdown
between Boss Whalen, the brutal prison warden played by Corin
Redgrave, and Butch O'Fallon (James Black), the hard-headed
convict who leads the strike. From two facing banks of seats,
the audience follows the action as if it were the deadliest of
Not the least of the
production's achievements is its ingenious manipulation of
Circle in the Square's notoriously cumbersome
theater-in-the-round. What has usually served as the world's
largest and weirdest living room, inevitably furnished with
backless chairs and sofas, has been transformed into a
claustrophobic environment charged with the tension of
In his review in The New York
Times, Ben Brantley said: ''I have never known the awkward
theatrical space that is Circle in the Square to be used as
effectively as it is here, with the prisoners marching in
lock-step through the aisles and the guards suddenly
materializing at your side. Mr. Nunn's staging extends the
prison's boundaries to embrace the audience, further
inhibiting any safe sense of a spectator's distance.''
On Monday, ''Not About
Nightingales'' received six Tony Award nominations, including
one for Mr. Hoover for best scenic design. Mr. Nunn, Mr.
Redgrave, Finbar Lynch, who portrays a prisoner-clerk in the
warden's office, and the lighting designer, Chris Parry, were
also nominated, as was the play itself.
Although he began as a
theater designer, Mr. Hoover has spent the last 15 years
working primarily on films, among them ''Dead Man Walking,''
the Tim Robbins movie in which Sean Penn plays a prisoner on
Death Row. It was this film that brought Mr. Hoover to the
attention of Mr. Nunn, who recently took on the job of running
the National Theater in London.
When Vanessa Redgrave
approached Mr. Nunn with the manuscript of a 60-year-old
never-produced prison drama by Tennessee Williams, he knew
just who would know how to put it on the stage.
In separate interviews with
the director and the designer, each man was eager to give the
other credit for key elements of the set: a testament to their
The metallic look of the show
was Mr. Hoover's idea, said Mr. Nunn by telephone from London:
''His first instinct is to work with real materials, because
the camera's scrutiny immediately discovers anything that's
phony. We didn't have to use them in a real way, but we wanted
real surfaces, real noise, real material. Metallic floor,
ironwork, bars, sliding doors. We wanted things that would
slam and clatter and crash. We wanted to furnish the place
with all-metal benches, metal bunks that would get moved away
-- all the ingredients of a kind of infernal machine, an
appalling man-made metallic machine.'' The prison cell unit
alone weighs almost 10 tons.
Meanwhile, it was Mr. Nunn's
idea to keep the color scheme monochromatic, so that
everything, from the American flag to a child's rubber duck,
appears in shades of gray.
The two men worked out every
detail of the production design while reading the script aloud
at Mr. Nunn's house in the country in Surrey. ''Trevor is one
of the most rigorous directors I've ever worked with in terms
of questioning a script,'' Mr. Hoover said. ''He does an
amazing amount of homework before going into rehearsal,
looking at every sentence, trying to figure out where it would
The environmental aspect of
the production was more or less dictated by the peculiar
dimensions of the Cottesloe Theater, the experimental space at
the National Theater where ''Not About Nightingales'' was
first installed. A long narrow black box (30 by 170 feet), the
Cottesloe seated only 234 spectators for the production.
''It's completely surrounded by metallic galleries, so we had
each one patrolled by guards,'' Mr. Nunn said. ''The audience
was perpetually aware of guards on duty. And when moments of
violence occurred, the sense was that it started onstage and
continued through and beyond the audience.''
The exact same set traveled
to Houston last summer for a staging at the Alley Theater,
which officially co-produced ''Not About Nightingales'' with
the National and the Moving Theater (a company founded by Ms.
Redgrave and her brother, Corin).
To preserve the
traverse-style presentation, with the audience seated on
either side of the stage, the Alley rented a high-ceilinged
convention hall. With space around it and the seating capacity
increased to 500, the set was somewhat less intimate than at
the Cottesloe. But in Houston it took on a formidable beauty
as a free-standing sculptural object.
Searching for suitable
theaters in New York, Mr. Hoover became excited at the
prospect of staging the play in some empty space, such as a
pier or the roof of a high school. He looked at the Manhattan
Center on West 34th Street and Studio 54 before ''Cabaret''
got to it. These options proved too expensive. He views Circle
in the Square as a reasonable compromise.
To keep the seating capacity
at 561, he had to dismantle the giant wall of filing cabinets
in Boss Whalen's office that represented another bureaucratic
form of incarceration. ''Physically, we couldn't quite
transform Circle in the Square into the prison,'' he said,
''but we could have the prison visit the theater.''
A small, soft-spoken,
52-year-old Illinois native whose unassuming demeanor masks
what Mr. Nunn calls a ''terrier determination,'' Mr. Hoover
began his career as an apprentice at the Guthrie Theater in
Minneapolis. He got involved with the American Indian movement
and made a one-hour documentary titled ''We Are the Evidence
of the Western Hemisphere,'' which introduced him to the
independent film community.
When he moved to California
in the mid-1980's, his theater background came in unexpectedly
handy in getting movie jobs. He was hired as the set designer
for David Lynch's television series ''Twin Peaks'' because the
father of its producer had directed the first play Mr. Hoover
designed in Minneapolis. And when he sent his resume to the
Actors Gang, a Los Angeles theater company whose hard-edged
New York-style work he admired, he wound up forging a
relationship with the company's co-founder, Tim Robbins, who
hired him as the set designer for the films ''Bob Roberts,''
''Dead Man Walking,'' and ''The Cradle Will Rock,'' which is
expected to open in the fall.
How does designing for film
compare with designing for theater? ''It has to do with the
eyeball, really,'' Mr. Hoover said. ''The perceptive eyeball
in film is the camera. We're creating emotion pictures,
manipulating the audience in a very focused way toward some
end. In the theater, the audience is a collective series of
eyeballs. The theater space can be less literal. We're not
completing every nook and cranny. That makes it more abstract
and more interesting for me.''
Most important, he said, is
the emotional journey of the script. ''How does it resonate
personally, and how do I physicalize that personal experience?
It's got to make sense here,'' he said, touching his chest
over his heart.
Mr. Hoover acknowledged that
''Not About Nightingales'' was designed to make those watching
it nervous. ''But it is not an attack on the audience,'' he
said. ''We're trying to show people who are locked up in a lot
of different ways.''
New York Times, May 9, 1999,