Theatre designer Max Johns has numerous credits to his name, including ground-breaking work for the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Scotland. Now, he’s working with Leeds Playhouse to create an astonishing monochrome island for its vivid new retelling of “Lord of the Flies” (18 March – 8 April).
Can you tell us a bit about the island you’ve created for the stage?
We’ve set the play in the modern day but have remained very true to the book in the sense that it’s still set on a tropical desert island. In other respects, however, is very different. The design has a very distinct colour palette of black and white with the gradual introduction of red throughout the piece. It’s a world in which we see the jungle of the island and the darkness that it holds, reflecting the fears of the children about what might be waiting for them.
How do you think audiences will interact with the look and feel of the design?
We were keen for the design to have a high contrast look, particularly for visually impaired audiences, so that it’s easy to identify where things are and to get to grips with the shape of the landscape. We wanted it to feel like an abstract version of reality, so we have palm trees that look like the real thing but are completely black in colour with a shiny, oily texture. Everything feels just slightly off. At the beginning, you feel like it could be a kind of paradise, but as the play unfolds, you see it gradually become a terrifying dystopian environment.
Are there key elements from the book that are also in the show?
There are some iconic images from the book that many people coming to see the show will recognise. The famous conch shell, for instance, still plays a pivotal role. In our production, it is a completely black shell and, as it needs to be destroyed during every performance, we have a lot of them. We also have the wild boar that the children hunt – the head of which gives us the title of the book and the play, and which shows us the passage of time through its decay. Creating the boar has been a long and fascinating prop journey – deciding how naturalistic we can make it while remaining within the black and white colour scheme of the world we’ve created. The end result feels very ‘other’ in relation to the people.
What are the main differences between the show and the original novel?
We were keen to draw out a sense of where these children have come from. The book famously begins with them already stranded on a desert island, but we’re showing the world they are escaping from through the objects they have with them. There’s a sense that they’re fleeing a war – some kind of conflict – and that the environment they have come from is present in the way the story unfolds on the island. They have brought the trauma of the war with them.
What are you most excited about seeing on stage?
I’m really excited to see our palm trees come to life on stage because they have been a fantastic collaboration between our prop-making and set-building departments. They have created these incredibly tall, abstractly shaped constructions that are gravity defying in their height and heft. They have a wonderful kind of creepy beauty to them.
Nigel Williams’ adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a Leeds Playhouse and Belgrade Coventry co-production presented in association with Rose Theatre. You can catch the show at Leeds Playhouse until April 8th 2023 and you can find more information and tickets here.
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