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A Streetcar Named Desire: Interview with Set Designer Magda Willi

Tom Wilkinson speaks to Magda Willi about her pared down, rotating vision of domesticity for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

Benedict Andrews’ new production of A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Young Vic last month to rave reviews. Gillian Anderson stars as cracked Southern belle Blanche DuBois, in a performance the Guardian called ‘stellar’. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer wrote: ‘I staggered out of this shattering production of Tennessee Williams’ bruising modern classic feeling shaken, stirred and close to tears … The show lasts three and a half hours, but there isn’t a moment when the tension slackens or attention lapses.’ These rapt reactions are a tribute to the direction and the uniformly excellent cast, but also to the work of Magda Willi, head designer of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. Her set for Streetcar is a kind of X-ray of Stella and Stan’s New Orleans apartment, a steel skeleton which rotates throughout the performance, adding a woozy impetus to the events on stage. Here Magda talks to the AR’s History Editor Tom Wilkinson about her design.  

Tom Wilkinson: How did you come up with the concept for the set?

Magda Willi: The design is partly inspired by the unique theatre space of the Young Vic. We tried a variety of layouts in the model, but it soon became apparent that the version in the round felt the best for this show. The aspects of this layout we were particularly interested in for this play were, firstly, its enormous intimacy: every audience member comes within about six metres of the cast at some point or other, which is very close for a 510-seat audience. And secondly, having the audience all the way around her means that Blanche finds herself within a kind of cage of voyeurs: she has very few moments where she escapes from the stage. To have all these eyes on her pretty much throughout the play is a big challenge for Blanche – however, Gillian totally lives up to it and manages to hold the tension.

TW: The stage revolves almost constantly throughout the play. Was that inspired by a particular element of the story?

MW: Benedict Andrews and I first did this play at the Schaubühne in Berlin in 2009 in a very different, very abstract version. The space was next to empty. So while working on this second Streetcar,we were going back and forth a lot between abstraction and naturalism. In the end, the two Streetcars now have one main thing in common, which is the use of a revolve. In Berlin the audience sat front-on, but we enjoyed working with the different perspectives and the shifts of those and the dynamics stemming from the movement. Also, the spinning does on some level of course link up with the spinning in Blanche’s head, the alcohol, and the spiral, which does not offer an exit.

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TW: What were the technical implications of this revolving set for you as the designer?

MW: The great thing about being a designer is that you have a production manager and a technical team at your side to make your dreams come true. So apart from making the set fit the space and taking good care of the sight lines I mainly had to clearly state Benedict’s and my wishes regarding revolve speed, silent revolving, electricity and water on stage, etc, to set the production manager and builders off on the quest for the best system for us to use.

TW: While this rotation allowed the audience to see the set from every angle, it does however mean that they aren’t seeing the same play as each other at the same time. How did you deal with this question?

MW: We tried to make it look beautiful and interesting from all angles! The impact it seemed to have on the acting is that rather than playing towards the audience on one or two sides, the actors are in a way forced to play towards each other – while of course still reaching the entire space with their presence and voice. The risk of not being in control of the overall front on picture is one that Benedict agreed to take – it’s generous and courageous of him to have done so. And even though directors usually have more control over what people see, you need to remember that there still are big differences in the views of the audience in most theatres … whether from the circles, the seats at the far ends of rows, etc.

TW: The framework of the set, the transparency, and especially the catwalk and fire escape, all reminded me of Russian Constructivist stage designs of the 1920s. But as well as being an abstraction it’s a claustrophobic situation that might be familiar to many of us, from living in little apartments with paper-thin walls. One of the ways that you reinforce this familiarity is by making a lot of the elements in the set functional, like the light switches, and the shower and toilet, both of which have running water. Why did you do this, and how do you balance this kind of naturalism with abstraction demanded by theatre?

MW: I often end up designing abstract spaces which don’t offer much realism to play with for the actors. However, with this design it is very much about a series of shells: from the embrace of the audience, via the octagonal space of the auditorium, then the circular space in which the set is placed, then the steel structure/cage on the island which revolves, then (for instance) the bathroom, to the bath cell with its curtain around it. The viewer zooms through these spaces into a flat, into microcosms (a kitchen sink unit, an unmade bed, the inside of a fridge) and actions we are completely familiar with. This is something we were specifically interested in playing with in this production. To have the contrast of the brutality and rawness of the steel and the bareness of the revolving rostrum, and then within this the fragility and flesh and softness of the humans inhabiting the space: this was more important than making an aesthetic or time reference. I designed the steel structure in this way because it felt like a reduction to a skeleton – one which is not be pinned down so much in time or place, but which features the right bones for the space and the play, if that  makes sense. To make this structure come alive and morph and be able to surprise, even after three hours, is a task which has been accomplished not only by Benedict and the actors, but also to an huge extent by the lighting designer Jon Clark. I love what he did to the set.

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The pared down domesticity of the apartment forms an abstract skeleton of cheap and generic furnishings

TW: Was the apartment inspired by any of your own experiences of domestic architecture, or did you look at real buildings in New Orleans?

MW: The apartment is very strictly made up of the things we needed to tell our story. There is nothing on the set which does not get used. I certainly did look at a lot of images of New Orleans architecture. However I decided not to use it in the design because the old houses shout ‘I’m old!’ too loudly for us to not be affected by it when it is placed in front of you on a stage. I believe using the old New Orleans architecture would immediately have put a question in the air as to whether it is all set in the 1940s – which is not something Benedict and I were interested in. The more abstract skeleton of a house could almost be an understructure or layout for any modern-day apartment.

TW: I thought I recognised some Ikea furniture on stage …

MW: For us this Streetcar world is a world of it’s own – it’s a stage, it’s a play, it’s artificial. However, we wanted it to be as close to us now today as possible. Hence the choice of cheap and generic furnishings. There is one Ikea drawer in there, which we have adapted to fit into the dressing table. None of the other things are Ikea, but by all means they should feel a bit like it. It’s the home of a couple with not much money, just enough to have a cheap flat with all the things they need.

TW: Did you go back and look at earlier productions?

MW: I did also look at photos of earlier productions, and of course I watched the movie. The text requires a specific layout of a flat to make sense – for instance, there need to be curtains, through which Mitch watches Blanche change; there needs to be a bathroom which can only be reached by walking through Stella and Stanley’s bedroom; there needs to be a porch, etc. So that part was a bit like a riddle – to work out the best arrangement of all things in the space.

TW: What do you think about the recent crop of architects designing for the stage, for instance Zaha Hadid’s recent set for the LA opera?

MW: It is probably not by accident that architects like Zaha Hadid or Herzog & de Meuron have been asked to design for opera rather than theatre. In opera, the score is there from the start, and unchangeable. The music is always more important than the story. It is made up from acts, arias, duets, etc for which the artistic team then designs tableaus or images. Opera spaces are mostly still clearly structured with a front-on audience, a proscenium arch, and the orchestra placed between audience and singers. And finally, the opera machine is a big one – designs are often handed in and built a year prior to the start of rehearsals.

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Zaha Hadid’s immaculate white dune formed the backdrop to Gustavo Dudamel’s Così Fan Tutte at the LA Opera

With plays it is a different thing. Often, when starting rehearsals, it is unclear whether bits of the text will be cut, whether there will be improvisations added, etc. So here it is much more about finding a world within which things may still develop during the rehearsal process. Hence, design for theatre also means attending rehearsals and reacting to things which are invented during them. I don’t believe Zaha Hadid would be able to spare the time.

TW: Apart from these one-off experiments, are there any professional crossovers between the worlds of architecture and set design?

MW: I know several architects who became theatre designers, for example the head of design at the Schaubühne in Berlin, Jan Pappelbaum, whose designs often are very architectural. However, I don’t know anyone who went the other way and became an architect. Also, once people have left architecture, they tend to stay in theatre – to do both at the same time may well be impossible due to the very different structures and time lines of architecture and theatre projects.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Benedict Andrews’ production of A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Young Vic until 19 September

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