A celebration of the life and work of Arnold Wesker (1932-2016) at the Royal Court Theatre on Sunday 9 October 2016 opened with a filmed extract from the 1961 production of The Kitchen. The play had first been produced in 1959 as a ‘Sunday Night without décor’ production, designed by Jocelyn Herbert.
The great thing was that we used the bare stage of the first time with the back wall and all the pipes showing. It was a real breakthrough and I think it was also the first time we put the lighting-rig above the set and allowed everything to be seen. John [Dexter] had the idea of using the lights for the gas; the old man came in and turned on the gas and one by one the lights came on very low and you heard the noise of the gas getting louder and louder as the lights went up. (Jocelyn Herbert, quoted in Courtney 37-8)
Later on in the afternoon of celebration, Pamela Howard showed some of Wesker’s drawings, marvelling at his ‘astonishing confidence’ in drawing directly with ink. She described a drawing of his kitchen as like a stage set: empty of people, the plates on the dresser ‘leaning forward like an audience’.
After the event in the theatre, the audience went downstairs to the bar to continue talking. There was a small exhibition of costume drawings by Pamela Howard for Wesker’s 1982 play Annie Wobbler, and in a glass case, the set model, with rods allowing you to slide sections of the set across the stage.
Pamela Howard recounts her first encounter with Jocelyn Herbert’s designs for Wesker’s trilogy Roots, Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. Howard was a scenic assistant at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, washing out buckets and making ivy leaves out of canvas, when she was persuaded to go to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry to see a new play.
I can’t believe it. Not only are the plays totally different from anything I have ever seen, but they are beautiful and poetic to look at. There are no dead ivy leaves. Just a line of washing, a well-chosen chair, a perfect table – and the words! Who has written this, I wonder, and who has made this beautiful staging?
There’s a small café, and we go to have a cup of tea. And then a tall, elegant lady comes up to us, and says she knows we come from the Birmingham Rep. She thanks us, and introduces herself as Jocelyn Herbert, the designer. She says she has been in Germany and met Bertolt Brecht and that’s where she had learned to “place things beautifully in the space.”