Sometimes auto-biographical, painfully realistic, hilariously funny and supernaturally unsettling, it is a real pleasure to collaborate with Conor on his work. These six productions, directed with incisive clarity by Conor or with the gentle accuracy of Ian Rickson, are all completely different. The characters in a starkly lit life are teetering on the edge of an ever present darkness; often down stage centre if Jim Norton’s got anything to do with it! The humour and theatricality of Conor’s stories demand an actor’s self knowing relationship with an audience that creates a warmth and a feeling of what its like to be alive in the world. A sort of dream.
2006: National Theatre / 2007: The Booth Theatre (Broadway), directed by Conor McPherson
The bleak realism of the play was enhanced by an actual floor that was taken out of my partner’s Mother’s house, a real floor showing all the layers of time; an excavation of lino from 1900 up until the late 1980’s.
At moments the light from the doorway at the back of the set penetrated the room, giving a sense of being inside a pre Christian tomb like Newgrange.
The costume drawings plot the narrative of the story but in fittings that is altered according to what the actor is rehearsing and evolving.
1997: The Royal Court Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson
This is my favourite Conor McPherson story. We visited pubs around Sligo and Leitrim: I drew the plan of the pub as we sat there and idiosyncratic moments around the bar itself. The evidence of this type of research trip can therefore directly be seen in the atmosphere and detail of the set. It had an installation feel and purposefully rough around the edges with a great deal of darkness over head reflecting the pitch black skies above a rural Ireland without streetlights, which contrasts with the intimate warmth of human contact.
opens the newly refurbished Royal Court Theatre, 2000, directed by Ian Rickson.
The setting was an Undertaker’s office in Dublin. Again, an installation rather than a set, taking fragments and experiences of an actual visit to a Dublin funeral home.
at the Royal Court theatre 2004 & the Gate Theatre Dublin 2004 directed by Conor McPherson
Shining City is set in an office in Dublin. The design challenge was inventing the appearance of the spirit of a dead woman. When the ghost materialised you could feel the chilling realisation of it sweep across the audience from the stalls to the back of the theatre where people would cry out and scream in alarm.
at the Gate theatre Dublin 2009, directed by Conor McPherson
Daphne Du Maurier’s epic tale adapted by Conor, was set in one room of a house on the coast of Ireland. Three strangers camp out in the abandoned property and become beseiged by the Birds. The room is now a fortress while the seige slowly drives the occupants insane.
at the National theatre 2011, directed by Conor McPherson:
Conor’s unnerving tale is set in 1822 in a room of a deteriorating post colonial mansion, pinned together by debt and 19th Century acroprops.
Overhead in the darkness is a full canopy of leaves shifting and murmuring in the breeze. The house is surrounded by the ruin and starvation of a dependant rural population; whilst inside a young woman is possessed by evil spirits and duly exorcised by a charismatic healer. The outcome is catastrophic.
All production images © Helen Warner
“Rae Smith’s evocation of Ian’s spartan office and Mark Henderson’s lighting add, in McPherson’s own production, to the magnetic eeriness of a play that suggests there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our modern materialist philosophy.”
Michael Billington, The Guardian
“Every aspect of this production glows with verisimilitude, starting with Rae Smith’s perfectly shabby costumes and set, which happily features one of the saddest Christmas trees ever seen.”
Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“Rae Smith’s set is inspired, a scuffed brown bar surrounded by darkness, at once thoroughly lived-in and mournfully bleak.”
Kate Bassett, The Daily Telegraph
“Rae Smith’s fine design, often spookily lit with flickering candles, brilliantly evokes the decayed country house”
Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph
“Rae Smith’s design, gorgeously mildewed and crumbling, smartly keeps you on edge with periphery shadows. A moonlit pot plant and a flickering candle, so far stage right they’re actually in the wings, repeatedly catch your eye to harvest goosebumps aplenty.”
“Beautifully designed by Rae Smith”
Colin Murphy, Irish Independent
“McPherson keeps us on the edge of our seat too, with piecemeal visual revelations. Even Rae Smith’s declining grand set is revealed to us inch by inch with the curtains’ slow withdrawal in the opening scene.”
Sara Keating, The Irish Times