Negri was a seminal theatre designer working on landmark productions
in the late 1950s and 1960s in particular.
An interesting interview with Negri was published in the magazine 'Plays
and Players' in May 1964, where Negri describes his approach to designing
Shakespeare for which he became noted following the enormous critical
success of the RSC production of 'As You Like It' in 1961.
Link to .pdf file of the article.
In his final year
at the Old Vic Theatre School Negri
designed the production of Shakespeare's
'King John' directed by Michel Saint Denis. In
the cast were Alan Dobie as King John supported by Eric Thompson,
James Maxwell and Dilys Hamlett amongst several others.
A surviving sketch for the battle scene in the photograph above
Following a year at the Borough Art School on the advice of Ninette
de Valois (where he was tutored by David Bomberg) Negri, in 1951, went
to the famous, and sadly short-lived, Old Vic Theatre School led by
Michel Saint-Denis. Some of his student project work survives and the
set of costume drawings for Chekhov's Uncle
Vanya are particularly touching as they display Negri's intensity,
sensitivity and immersion in the characters of the play.
After graduating from the Advanced Technical course at the Old Vic Theatre
School under his mentor Michel Saint-Denis (see
Negri's final report) he worked at Oldham in weekly repertory theatre
from 1952 to 1953.
'A Streetcar Named Desire'
(Williams) The scale model for an Oldham Repertory Theatre Club production
The realised set for 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Scale Model for 'The Sycamor Tree' for Oldham
Scale Model for 'Madam Tic Tac' for Oldham (The Club's
758th production, opened March 2nd 1953)
From the perspective of current practice it seems remarkable that such
lengths were gone to for a weekly repertory system, given the labour
intensity and time consuming nature of scale model making.
In 1954 Negri established the Piccolo Theatre Company with Frank Dunlop
using a small inheritance from his father. Piccolo was a club theatre
in an imaginatively converted upper room of the Conservative Club in
Chorlton-Cum-Hardy, Manchester (conversion designed by Negri, see photo
below). This was an ambitious and very successful entreprise that enjoyed
the patronage of Peggy Ashcroft and support from his former tutors at
The Old Vic School who guested as directors and designers during the
year. A musical version of the Victorian melodrama 'Maria Marten' successfully
transferred to Cambridge's Arts Theatre at the end of the company's
mp3 file, 824 kb, 1 minute 39 seconds - George Hall, the theatre
musician/composer, recalls 'King John' at the Old Vic School
(see above), Negri's design for 'Playboy of the Western
World' for Piccolo and compares Negri's design work with that of
the Berliner Ensemble.
mp3 file, 1.53 mb, 3 minutes 03 seconds - George Hall on the founding
of the Piccolo Theatre Company. Some of the 'facts' he asserts are doubtful
or need further investigation (for example that Casper Wrede set the
company up with Negri when all evidence to date asserts that Frank Dunlop
was the partner and that Margaret Harris (of the design team Motley)
put up the money to get the company going, which may be true, but it
is also clear that Negri did use a small inheritance of his own).
Richard Negri with the model of his conversion of a room
into the Piccolo Theatre
A press photograph of Negri and the actress Gillian Charles
with his model of the setting for Piccolo's opening production
of the Spanish comedy 'The Women Have Their Way' by the Quintero brothers.
Production photograph of the Piccolo Theatre production
of 'The Taming of the Shrew'. Bernard Cribbins is in the semi squatting
This early period of work, immediately on graduating from the Old Vic
Theatre School, gave Negri enormous practical experience and tested
his ingenuity and capacity for speedy invention. The press coverage
of his work for the Piccolo Theatre Company was enormous in comparison
with today's fringe theatre enterprises. Fortunately Negri kept every
(or so it seems) piece of press that referred to his work and that complete
archive is now being conserved in the SPARK research centre at Wimbledon
School of Art.
After a year-long period of illness in 1955 (seemingly verging on a
nervous breakdown) when Negri contemplated entering a monastic order,
he returned to the theatre in 1956 working at the Royal Court with former
tutor George Devine on a double bill by Ronald Duncan
of Don Juan
and The Death of Satan
(with a cast including Nigel Davenport, Joan
Plowright, Keith Michell, Robert Stephens
and Rosalie Crutchley)designing the settings in collaboration
with the designer John Minton, who also designed the
Negri soon then began his fruitful collaborative relationship with the
director Michael Elliott. Working with Elliott (along
with lighting designer Richard Pilbrow, musician/composer
George Hall and movement director Litz Pisk).
Negri was the designer, for example, of:
Patrick McGoohan, Fulton MacKay, Patrick Wymark, Peter Sallis, Frank
Windsor and Dilys Hamlett at the Lyric
Hammersmith in 1959,
You Like It' with Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Bannen, Rosalind
Knight, Patrick Wymark, Russell Hunter, Peter Gill, Max Adrian, Patsy
Byrne and Ian Richardson for
the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 at Stratford and the Aldwych,
Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt'
with Leo McKern at London's Old Vic in 1962 (LINK
to an article in Theatre World, November 1962, that gives an idea of
the esteem in which the production was held) and with Tom
Courtenay at the University Theatre, Manchester in 1971.
Julie' with Maggie Smith and Albert Finney was produced
at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1965 and the Old Vic in 1966
There were other notable achievements in this period when Negri was
a very significant designer:
In 1957, at the Royal Court 'Nekrassov'
by Jean Paul Sartre directed by George Devine with
Robert Helpmann heading a distinguished cast including
Ronald Barker, Roddy McMillan, James Villiers, Bernard Kay and Harry
H. Corbett. He also designed Chekhov's 'Platonov' directed
by George Devine and John Blatchley
at the Royal Court
in 1960 with Rex Harrison as well as James Bolam, Peter
Bowles, Ronald Barker, Rachel Roberts and Graham Crowden.
Also, Peter Shaffer's double bill 'The Private Eye' and 'The
Public Ear' with Maggie Smith and
Kenneth Williams at the Globe, in the West End directed by
Shakespeare's 'King Richard II'
at London's Old Vic in 1959, directed by Val May with
Maggie Smith as the Queen to John Justin's King Richard. George
Baker, John Woodvine and Joss Ackland were also in the cast.
'Lady at the Wheel' a musical comedy directed
by Wendy Toye in 1958, costumes by
Motley and lighting by Richard Pilbrow with
Bernard Cribbins at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.
'Masterpiece' in 1961, a play by Larry Ward and Gordon Russell,
directed by Harry Kaplan, lighting by Richard
Pilbrow at the Royalty Theatre. Anton Walbrook
and Margaret Johnston headed a strong cast
that included Peter Sallis, Patrick Magee, Robert Eddison
and Arnold Marlé.
Bristol Old Vic he designed a production of Joseph
O'Conor's early play, 'The Iron Harp'. With
Peter O'Toole in the lead role (alongside O'Conor)
the play also gave a first important role to Richard
Negri also had a six month spell as a television designer
and his work at that time included designs for Ibsen's
'John Gabriel Borkman',
which marked Laurence Olivier's television debut in
the title role and 'Hay Fever' with Edith Evans
and Maggie Smith, both directed by Casper Wrede.
Also: 'The Living Room' with Dorothy
Tutin, Ring Round The Moon' with Yvonne
Arnaud, 'Touch of the Sun' with Michael Redgrave
all directed by Lionel Harris. Working
with director Peter Wood, Negri also
designed 'Sunday out of Season' with Alec McCowan
and Maggie Smith.
Whilst Head of the Theatre Department at Wimbledon School of Art he
designed Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' with James
Maxwell playing Prospero for the '69 Theatre Company, directed
by Michael Elliott in 1969. With Elliott again in 1974 he also designed
Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' with Tom Courtenay
as Malvolio and Lindsay Duncan as Viola
with director Casper Wrede, he designed 'Othello'
at the Old Vic in 1965
and, with Michael Elliott, co-directed the première of the opera
'The Story Of Vasco', by
Gordon Crosse, for English National Opera at London's Coliseum in 1974.
He also designed Chekov's 'The Cherry
Orchard' (1980), and 'The
Round Dance' from Schnitzler's 'La Ronde' (1983) both
for the Royal Exchange.
mp3 file, 1.68 mb, 2 minutes 27 seconds - Ronald Harwood on
the change in British theatre with the advent of theatre lighting, his
opinion that Negri didn't have much of a career as a designer and that
he wasn't much of a team player because of his personality and obstinacy,
as well as other recollections.