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Staging The Real

Jocelyn Herbert’s set design for Serjeant Musgrave's Dance by John Arden.

The theatre design symposium Staging the Real considered how realisms and variations of the real have been shaped and staged.

28 November 2018, National Theatre

The symposium examined critical and practical questions such as:

  • How do designers, directors and writers approach and collaborate in the creation of the real for performance?
  • What are the challenges or parameters for practitioners in constructing and visualising the real or realism?
  • To what extent can the theatre form or reframe the social and personal experiences of realities in performance?

Developed from initial research into Jocelyn Herbert’s designs for 'The Wesker Trilogy' (1960), Staging the Real explored historic and contemporary approaches to evoke or present the real or realisms in theatre and performance. From re-evaluating notable realist designs from theatre history to engaging with more recent stagings of the real, this symposium will consider the complex relationship theatre practitioners have in their attempts to access reality and represent social, personal and political actualities on stage.

As well as attending the symposium, participants had the opportunity to explore Jocelyn Herbert’s designs with an archive handling session and a curator’s tour of the Playing with Scale exhibition.


Arnold Aronson, Jane Collins, Alex Eales, Eileen Hogan, Matthew McFrederick, Poly Teale, Roy Williams.

Staging the Real was organised in collaboration with the Jocelyn Herbert Archive, the National Theatre Archive and the National Theatre Learning Department. Convened by Dr Matthew McFrederick (Jocelyn Herbert Post-Doctoral Research Fellow), Professor Jane Collins and Professor Eileen Hogan (both Wimbledon College of Arts).

Playing With Scale: How designers use set models

8 November 2018 - 6 May 2019, Wolfson Gallery, National Theatre

The exhibition Playing with Scale explored why designers make scale models and brings attention to their collaborative work with directors, scenic artists, actors and designers of lighting and projection.

The exhibition focused on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, showing how important models were for architect Denys Lasdun, who designed the Olivier Theatre, and how theatre designers have responded in very different ways to this unique space.

There are archive models of two productions from the early days of the new theatre:

  • The Plough and the Stars - 1977, designer Geoffrey Scott
  • The Life of Galileo - 1980, designer Jocelyn Herbert

Four more recent productions continue the dialogue with the Olivier:

  • Antigone - 2012, designer Soutra Gilmour
  • The Comedy of Errors - 2011, designer Bunny Christie
  • Exit the King - 2018, designer Anthony Ward
  • Antony and Cleopatra - 2018, designer Hildegard Bechtler

The exhibition included rarely seen sketch models, digital films made for use by the NT production team, archive sound recordings and a reading room with books on models, theatre design and practical model-making.

Eleanor Margolies is a Jocelyn Herbert Fellow of Camberwell, Chelsea, Wimbledon, University of the Arts London (2016-18). She is the curator of the exhibition, Playing with Scale and her article on Jocelyn Herbert's models, 'Precursors for Performance' was published in the 'On Models' issue of Theatre and Performance Design (vol. 4, 1-2). She founded Puppet Notebook magazine, editing it until 2012 and is the author of Props: Readings in Theatre Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Her translation of Manifesto for a Modern Theatre by Patrick Dubost will be published in 2019.