Uncovering the design for ‘Early Days’

A guest blog by Hannah Shapland, BA Theatre Design student at Rose Bruford College

This week I have been looking at the archived files for information on Early Days, written by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson. This show was first put on in the Theatre Royal Brighton in March 1980 before moving to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre and then the Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter theatre). In May 1981, the production had a four-week run at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

I looked at Jocelyn Herbert: A Theatre Workbook which includes her account of the production. She says, ‘The set was made of three sets of gauzes, one behind the other, which had abstract trees painted on them.’ Wanting to find out about this I looked at the National Theatre Archives to see if I could find out more.

I started out by looking at Jocelyn Herbert’s set and costume drawings which give you a wonderful idea of her process getting to the final outcome.

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Ralph Richardson as ‘Kitchen’ in ‘Early Days’ (JH/4/62)
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‘Bristol’ in ‘Early Days’ (JH/4/62)
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‘Josquin’ in ‘Early Days’ (JH/4/62)

The costumes are in very neutral tones and quite naturalistic, but most have a pop of colour in elements like a red bow tie, a medal or a blue jumper. They seem to be painted using watercolour to get the main colour of the costume but some elements like white collars are more solid. (She may have used acrylic or gouache for these parts.) To get more intricate details like the folds in the fabric it looks like she’s used a fine liner pen over the top. These marks would give the costume production team a good idea of how the fabric was to sit on the body and how it would fall. I really like the personality that she puts into her drawings by including things like cups of tea or walking sticks as it truly gives you an idea of the character.

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Photos of foliage (JH/4/62)

One folder contains photographs of leaves. It looks as though she then photocopied these images and played with the contrast. As she did this, she could see how much detail she wanted the leaves to have and how abstract it could be whilst still conveying the idea of trees and nature.

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Photocopies of photographs of leaves (JH/4/62)

Then she made drawings on tracing paper.

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Pencil drawing on tracing paper (JH/4/62)

Tracing paper was the perfect medium as she could layer the pages on top of each other and get an idea of how the gauzes would look on stage before she finalised it. She had cut out sections of the photocopies, and the same idea appears in the drawings.

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Sections cut out of photocopies (JH/4/62)
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Pencil drawing on cartridge paper (JH/4/62)

In Jocelyn Herbert – A Theatre Workbook she says ‘The idea was that Ralph Richardson would come weaving in and out through them and be picked out behind the gauze using just a little bit of light when he first came in.’ So we can imagine that these cutouts were doorways. But I still didn’t know how these gauzes would be put together.

Upon looking further into the main archive of National Theatre productions (rather than the Jocelyn Herbert Archive), I found a photo of the model box for ‘Early Days’ at the Cottesloe Theatre.

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Photo of ‘Early Days’ set model (RNT/PO/5/89)

From the description in the Workbook, I had imagined that the gauzes were parallel to each other but I realised that instead they were placed at an angle to each other. This would have hidden the back of the stage where the actors enter and created a more natural feeling because the trees aren’t all square to each other. I also found the ground plans which contain information on the measurements of where the set was to be placed and the size of the gauzes.

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Sketch showing how the gauzes were placed (Hannah Shapland, from technical drawings in National Theatre archive RNT/SM/1/161).

From this I could see how Jocelyn Herbert wanted to fill the space including the raked seating and how the space around the set was to be dressed – with black carpet on the floor. There is also a plan which tells us about how they took the set from the Theatre Royal Brighton and transferred it to the Cottesloe. These theatres are very different as Brighton has a fixed proscenium whereas the Cottesloe is more flexible. So there would have been a lot of elements that would have had to change when it moved theatres, such as lighting and seating.

Another resource that designers might not be aware of is that the National Theatre Archive contains show reports from most of the shows run there which can be useful for finding out more about the productions and the changes the directors are making during the run of the show. This play was specifically written for Ralph Richardson, but according to David Storey Richardson had declined it three times which he later revealed was due to being worried about being able to memorize his lines. [Note 1] I found this particularly interesting because whilst looking at the stage manager reports you see a common theme of the ‘text being shaky’ and there being ‘dropped words and sentence ends’ but in spite of this the audience is still said to give a hearty applause for Sir Ralph Richardson.

Personally my favourite note is where the stage manager asks, ‘Into whose realm does the job of oiling the auditorium seats fall? There are some shockers in the Cottesloe – I think on the top level’ (Friday 24 April 1980). It’s wonderful to be able to look into the notes and get an understanding for the feeling of the team working on that show.

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National Theatre stage manager’s report, 17 June 1980 (RNT/SM/2/2/23)

Note 1- The Plays of David Storey – A thematic study by William Hutchings, Southern Illinois Press, Carbondale, IL 1988, pp. 144-5.

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