Richard 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 in 1952/3

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 first season.

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 pose.

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 costumes.

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:

Ibsen's 'Brand' with Patrick McGoohan, Fulton MacKay, Patrick Wymark, Peter Sallis, Frank Windsor and Dilys Hamlett at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1959,

'As 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, London.

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.

Strindberg's 'Miss 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 Peter Wood.

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.

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.

At the 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 Harris.

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

Also, collaborating with director Casper Wrede, he designed 'Othello' at the Old Vic in 1965

He designed 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.

© Copyright 2006