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Alex Lowde - A Design For Life For Anna Karenina

Alex Lowde is having a ball. As he peers dreamily into the scaled down
black and white model for his set design of Dundee Rep's forthcoming
production of Anna Karenina, you can see entire worlds come to life in
his eyes. Moving around pieces of tiny furniture inside the model's
square box interior, it's as if Lowde has become a character in some
child-like epic centred around some fantasy-fuelled princelings who
conjure up some kind of magic from their toy theatre as they sit
around the fireside. As it is, the bright meeting room at the top of
the Rep building may spoil the ambience somewhat, but Tolstoy's own
epic yarn as translated by Jo Clifford is probably enough to be getting
on with anyway, both in full size and in the miniature replica that
sits before us.

“It's vast,” Lowde murmurs just out of a costume fitting with the cast
and director Jemima Levick, with whom he is collaborating for a sixth
time at Dundee following work on Equus, The Elephant Man, A Doll's
House and the Christmas shows where they initiated their partnership,
Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. “There are a huge number of
costumes to deal with, because everyone in the play makes such a
journey between town and country, and we're trying to reflect that. The
town's heavy and black and quite depressive, whereas the country's
lighter and the fabrics are much less dense and freer and far more
airier. So we're just trying to characterise the environment because
it's all going to be performed in the one space.”

For a work as big as Anna Karenina, it would be easy to overload the
stage with period drawing room clutter. This, however, isn't Lowde's
way. Anyone who saw Equus, with its in-the-round arena where Peter
Shaffer's psycho-sexual drama could be played out afresh, or the
two-tiered ideal home in Levick's Mad Men style reappropriation of
Ibsen's A Doll's House, or the wide open Victorian asylum of The
Elephant Man will be fully aware of Lowde's ability to bring a play's
visual elements to the fore without ever swamping the writing or
performances.

“If you look back,” Lowde says of his researches into the period Anna
Karenina is set in, “everything was so ornate and well-crafted, with so
much work done on everything to make it so incredibly decorative. But
we wanted things to be more fluid, so we've stripped it right back to
be a kind of period silhouette. There's no detail on it.”

One thing Lowde has introduced into Anna Karenina are a series of
audio-visual back projections.

“It's such an epic story that needs a real sweep,” he observes.

Lowde grew up in Hemel Hempstead and studied drama at Hull University
before completing a design degree in London that was a natural
extension of his boyhood pursuits.

“Even as as kid I made models out of corn flakes boxes,” he recalls,
“and would imagine there was some kind of drama going on on the street
down the road. As a child I did it through play, and I just carried on
doing it because I really enjoy it. Each production is a puzzle that
needs to be unpicked and how you fit it into a space needs to be
solved.”

Lowde's early working days were somewhat surprisingly spent as an
assistant designer on touring commercial shows such as Chitty Chitty
Bang Bang and Mamma Mia, when a show would need to be adapted from
venue to venue.

“That was an education in itself,” Lowde admits, “but you can't do it
forever. I had to get out eventually to do my own work.”

Once off the commercial treadmill, Lowde worked with Paines Plough,
Newcastle Playhouse, the Young Vic, Sadler's Wells and the Royal Opera
House. The Dundee connection came about by a happy accident after
Levick was contacted by Lowde's agent while she was shopping around for
a designer to take on Beauty and the Beast.

““We met and went through his portfolio,” Levick recalls, “and I just
loved his work. “His attention to detail is amazing, he's incredibly
economical about what he uses, and the things he does are really
distilled, but there's a real style to them as well. I can propose a
concept to him, like with Equus I really wanted to do it in the round
and try to get away from the play's 1970s roots, and he can build it up
from that and give it a really contemporary edge.”

Lowde's other work in Scotland includes Sam Holcroft's play, While You
Lie, at the Traverse, and a co-production between Scottish Opera and
Opera North of Janacek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek, which Lowde
describes as one of his more stylised projects.

“Ideally I like to do things in a contemporary way,” he says. “I don't
see any point in me doing period drama per se, doing it completely
straight, or doing things in a filmic way, because you may as well do
film. I like to do things that are quite clean and quite crisp. Having
said that a lot of the things I've done here are some of the more
naturalistic environments that I've designed. I really love a lot of
design for dance. People like Wayne McGregor, I think it's amazing that
he can produce such spare, clean evocative spaces and which can still
be abstract. There's something about the cleanness of the dance world I
love.”

With such a varied body of work, while there is plenty of personality
in each design, there are no discernible signature tics that you might
see coming from other designers. Lowde puts this down to the sheer
open-ness of the Rep stage itself.

“As a designer you're completely free here,” he says. Jemima very
generous with her creative team, and very open, and that gets the best
out of us. We keep on having to push ourselves and challenging
ourselves to do things differently.”

Just how free Lowde will continue to be in the current economic climate
remains to be seen.

“People are being more cautious about the work they're doing since the
cuts,” he says. “In opera in particular there are a lot more revivals
now. I did an opera last year based around Alzheimer's Disease, and I'm
not sure if anyone would take a chance on something like that now.”

Beyond Anna Karenina, Lowde is working on a production of Thomas
Middleton's A Mad World My Masters at a new performing space at York
University. While there are no immediate plans for Lowde to work in
Scotland again, though if he did one project that he might want thrown
his way is Phaedre, another epic tragedy with a woman at its centre. As
with Anna Karenina, though, what does Lowde think design can bring to
such an already big work?

“I think it can evoke a mood around it,” he says. “This play has such
an emotional heart to it and everything's in such flux, and I hope that
the design can support that. There's something quite practical about
making things that I love. All that black and white, you just have to
keep that simmering along with that sense of pervading doom.”

Anna Karenina, Dundee Rep, May 23-June 11
www.dundeereptheatre.co.uk

The Herald, May 17th 2011

ends

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