After Susan introduced the session, our interviewer Graham Watts began the conversation by welcoming John Macfarlane (from his home in the Brecon Beacons) and mentioning that we are all together at such events even though we are geographically separated.

How then did John become a designer of dance? He confirmed that it came very early as he had always wanted to design predominantly for ballet and opera, after seeing the Royal Ballet on tour at Glasgow King’s, and including the Leslie Hurry Swan Lake. John explained that his father was an architect and artist and his mother was an embroideress, so it was no surprise he went to the School of Art, although he didn’t do theatre design then as there was no course in Glasgow at that time. He then got a Leverhulme Travelling Scholarship which took him to Italy. When he came back, he applied for an Arts Council Training Bursary. That sent him for half the year to Leatherhead and then to the Young Vic, to learn about theatre design, where he then became resident designer. 

After a year of that, he was chosen by Peter Brook to benefit from a scholarship called the Shakespeare Prize. As part of that prize, Brook could choose the work of a young designer. John sees that as his passport out of the world of straight theatre and led to his chance to go to Germany where he knew about the work of a company called TanzForum in Cologne, run by Jochen Ulrich and similar to Ballet Rambert in London. Then he went to Berlin and worked on drawings and paintings.  “I showed him the work and he gave me what was my first ballet. That was the start. I was 22 or 23. To get started you need a bit of talent and you do need to want to do it, but there is also a terrific amount of luck.” He illustrated this by saying that at the same time as being asked to do the ballet, he also took his work into a gallery in Cologne and they gave him an exhibition. 

Before all this happened, he had shown his work to Norman Morrice at Ballet Rambert. When he did a second ballet with Jochen, John met Nadine Baylis who had worked with Norman and Glen Tetley, and through her he met Glen. “He was great and a close friend till his death, but he was kind of frightening but amazing to be around. He asked three times for me but I couldn’t previously accept because of other commitments, but eventually I did it.”
Work with Glen led to Jiří Kylián, who John first worked with on Forgotten Land in Stuttgart. “Jiří and I were sort of the same age and the same stage of our lives; he had not yet done many things and I was the same. We did twenty minute pieces and we also did pieces like L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. We had no facility to do things, we would lay polythene in the dance studios after the dancers finished and do the painting there in the evenings.” Glen, on the other hand was very experienced “not to say, grand. A completely other way of working. I learnt a huge amount from him.” The first piece they did together was for Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). 

John’s early reputation then was built outside the UK – how, then, did he come back to the UK? John did two early works for Ballet Rambert with Norman Morrice who he thought wasn’t really enjoying doing the choreography. “At that point we were still living in Cardiff and when he was working at the Royal he used to come down at weekends to escape.” Then Giselle came up in 1984 at the Royal Opera House. “I hadn’t really wanted to do a classical ballet; I loved looking at them when I was smaller but I never thought of doing them.” John was asked to design Giselle after meeting Peter Wright, who asked for some specific drawings of Giselle’s house and Act II before engaging him. “I think that was a very smart thing to ask, because Giselle is always too pretty with a chocolate box little house, and the landscape has a castle on a crag. Act II should be creepy; I never felt it was creepy enough or dark enough.” 

Graham then moved on to talk about the Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker with Peter Wright, which also seemed quite dark. “He asked me to do the Nutcracker, but it was the one of the three Tchaikovsky ballets I never wanted to do. I said I would do it but I want it to be rats and not little mice and I want it to be really frightening: when the room changes it must be a massive change of scale. In Act II Clara must not be led to a chair to sit down and watch. When that happens on stage, you just lose interest.  He said OK. It was the biggest thing they had done; I didn’t realise that. It was huge and they had never done anything so complicated set-wise at that time.”

Moving on to Cinderella for David Bintley, John was asked how you approach a story like that? “Strangely enough, I went into it not with existing ideas but I’ve always thought the score was fantastic. I remember saying I wanted the ballroom to seem quite small and confined; then I wanted it all to open up as Cinderella walks down the steps, so that she is walking through a night sky.” John also knew not to short-change the end of Act II when Cinderella runs away and returns to her rags. “It’s like the Christmas tree in Nutcracker, the audience is waiting to see how you will do it.” He also talked about how he has to live up to the wonderful music: “that terrifies you as a designer.”

In recent times, John has worked closely with Liam Scarlett. How did that evolve and how has it developed? “It was when I was doing Cinderella and the Royal Opera House workshops were building the set. I was due to go to London and got a phone call from Kevin O’Hare asking me if I knew Liam’s work.” It turned out that Liam had asked for him and, at this time, John had been working in opera for some time so he was immediately interested. He was sent DVDs of the work and they met, and talked about Asphodel Meadows and they got on well. Ideas like using black and white, and moving screens, evolved from their discussions. “He turned in, I think, an absolutely beautiful piece. I love his complete certainty, and watching him in rehearsal.” A memorable email a year or so later from Liam asked John if he knew about a painter called Walter Sickert! “I thought Sweet Violets was an absolutely astonishing work, although it fared very badly with the critics.” Age of Innocence is the piece he feels less connected to, as “I didn’t warm to the Auden poem or the music.”
Then came Frankenstein and Swan Lake. “Frankenstein I was a bit frightened about; I’ve always found the book a difficult read. To balance that, it’s a fantastic period to deal with, with the early days of anatomy and medicine, and where superstition is declining and science is taking over. As a production design I absolutely loved it and I think Liam did a fantastic job; I think the criticism was unfair. It’s a tall order to create a new three act ballet – if it was a West End musical you would have about 40 previews – ballets like Frankenstein need to be done again. Happily it’s to have a new life at Royal Danish Ballet. It will be basically the same designs but you refine things.” The production is planned to open in March 2022 in Copenhagen. It was going to be a rental but they very much wanted their own production, and that is now what will happen.

Swan Lake was in the midst of a revival at the start of lockdown last year. How did he approach Swan Lake with Liam? “We had established a gentle and trusting way of working with each other. I remember seeing the old Leslie Hurry production when I was 11 or 12. It’s a colossal risk for a company to pay for a new Swan Lake, they need to hold on to it for a long time. I didn’t want them to have a curtain between Act I and II; the music almost repeats itself from the parkland to the lake, so I thought we could do an amazing morph with him (Siegfried) in the middle of the set change. It was very hard for the stage crew, very difficult to do and I’m happy we did it. Then you come to the Act III opening with a brassy opulent fanfare and you have to live up to it. That was the hardest problem.” He spent five months working on the set models for that production, as well as making endless drawings. John also spoke of how well Liam seamlessly matched new and old choreography in that production. 

Was the move to opera deliberate? “Possibly the fact that I am a painter led to dance being the most sympathetic medium. But I do remember a point when I got a bit tired of a flat floor! I was longing to do big perspectives. I think there was an element of realism that I was missing and at that point, fortunately, Willy Decker from Cologne asked me to do Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream for him.” That eventually led to other work in opera, often with just a few people like Francesca Zambello that he enjoys long-term working relationships with.
The collaborative process is very important and this works particularly well, for example, with Sir David McVicar. “We seem to have a very quick way of working out what we both want. I like to build rough cardboard walls and floors in the studio first, then be left alone to develop the next rough stage for the second meeting. Very often with David, and with Liam, the third meeting is the final model (with two or three months in between as I build the model).”
John explained that you need to know how you are going to” travel the audience through the piece”, believing in the characters and the action, particularly in a classical ballet. He also confirmed that he is very hands on with his designs, he builds his own set models, and then the costumes, dealing with everything from dye samples to helping to paint the cloths to get exactly onstage what I had on the model.
At this point, technical difficulties led to a break in communication. While this was sorted out, two short videos were shown of John at work:


Swan Lake 

When the technical difficulties were resolved, Graham asked John what he still has on his wish list? Not much it seems, although he would like to have done Turandot or Eugene Onegin. When a job does come along it can be a surprise: “I never thought I would do Tosca at the Met. And very often things that you don’t think you want to do, turn out to be great experiences.” John also has his painting career: “It recharges me, it’s part of who I am. If I do too much ballet and opera, I need six months in my studio on my own work.” However, John also recognised that production designs and paintings are dependent on each other. (Prints and other artwork by John Macfarlane can be purchased from his website:

Asked how he had coped during lockdown, John explained that he had planned to take time off after a busy period, so it was wonderful to be at home during that wonderful spring. He spent two months just drawing trees.  Now he is working on Verdi’s Macbeth for Lyric Opera Chicago, working from home via Zoom which is difficult. “You can cover so much more in a short time over a table with the model at the end. But I’ve done both model presentations over Zoom and it seemed to go alright.” 

Looking to the future, he has been offered a monster production for La Scala Milan but he can’t really talk about that. “It’s almost impossible at the moment for any company to do long-term planning, but I’ve been very lucky.” 

Graham then invited questions from the audience. The first questioner asked John about his emotions when the curtain goes up on his set? “It’s just fantastic for me, it’s the most exciting touching thing to get the audience applause.” He was asked how much detail he is given when he designs? John explained that this varied but that “on productions like Nutcracker I was given carte blanche, I had every fly bar in the Birmingham Hippodrome to play with as they wouldn’t tour it.”

The next questioner asked about the production of Swan Lake that John designed in Munich. “It points up one issue if you do these classics: you need someone who can direct as well as choreograph; that production honed in on the dance but the crowd scenes were not directed. It was a difficult time at that theatre. It was a very, very hard job and I was terribly unhappy with the result.”

Two more questions: would there be a Macfarlane Bayadere? “I don’t like the music so I turned it down.” And is Von Rothbart in the Royal Ballet Swan Lake modelled on Putin? “It’s a great idea to have Putin as Von Rothbart but I think it was closer to Christopher Lee.”

Asked who was his biggest influence as a painter, John explained that he couldn’t really come up with just one, but the stage designers who have influenced him most include Benoit and Bakst. The final questioner asked about future exhibitions that might be at planning stage. John explained that he is working on new work at the moment and the gallery in Cardiff that sells his work is closed during lockdown. “I’m really enjoying not working towards an exhibition. I’m selling works privately and receiving commission which is nice. It feels like a window.”

With that, Graham handed back to Susan, who thanked him for his questions and John for giving us a fascinating insight into the life of a stage designer.

Written by Chris Abbott and edited/approved by John Macfarlane and Graham Watts



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