Paul Brown obituary
Paul Brown, the opera and theatre designer, who has died aged 57, was a dealer in truth and beauty; his great talent, in a career crammed with landmark productions, was to point up the difference between the two.
There was always the moment in a Paul Brown show where the audience gasped; the flaming staircase at the end of Pelléas et Mélisande (Glyndebourne, 2004), the carnival of giant rutting rabbits in The Fairy Queen (Glyndebourne, 2009). Sometimes the show was one extended coup de théâtre. The Tempest (2000), where Ariel dived through dark waters on the flooded stage of the Almeida, was described in the Guardian as the most inventive staging of Shakespeare since Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The 2009 Aida, on the lake stage at Bregenz, upped the ante with speeding gun-boats and a sky-ballet of shipyard cranes.
Paul was my friend for nearly 40 years, and I never knew him to repeat an idea. Yet for all the fabulous invention, there was a scrupulousness to Paul’s character and creativity that rejected spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Nor was he swayed by audience expectation; he could do “ravishing” like no one else (as evidenced by his 2006 Tosca at the Royal Opera House) but inclined, often, towards the ravaged. Working up designs for La Traviata in Verona (2004), he knew very well that the amphitheatre crowd liked its Violettas piped in meringue. He gave them a bald and battered whore, and took an extra kick at populist sentiment with a shrine of cellophaned flowers.
Paul was fast and very funny, charming enough to convince the grandest divas they would look marvellous in a chicken suit, or dragging a chandelier, on their knees, through mud. His period costumes were exquisite and always authentic; he could tell you, to the month, when a stock or a stomacher was first worn, but ducked the dead hand of historicism with forensic attention to character.
It was entirely fitting that his Oscar-nominated costume designs for the 1995 film Angels and Insects turned on the notion of clothing-as-carapace, a notion which later found apotheosis in the gorgeous, glinting bugs that shimmied from behind the fridge in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (Glyndebourne, 2013). The modern “clothes, not costumes” mantra bounced off Paul. “It doesn’t really cut it,” he pointed out, “when you’re making a frock-coat for a beetle.”
He micromanaged sets to an astonishing degree. Staging Coriolanus and Richard II in the derelict Gainsborough Studios in 2000, Paul was excited to find a number of old doors, richly textured with guano. Informed that this was a technical bio-hazard, he allowed the doors to be washed, but each individual splatter was painted back on by hand.
Paul enjoyed unusually close collaborations with directors, and worked predominantly with Graham Vick and Jonathan Kent; Vick remembers “an incredibly powerful intellect and personality”. Kent compares the director/designer relationship to a marriage. “We had a long-running stand-off over Wellington boots.” he recalls, “I kept banning them, Paul kept sneaking them in. For 20 years.”
Born in Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan, the son of Alan Brown, a master printer, and his wife, Enfys (nee Jones), Paul was educated at Christ college, Brecon, and at the University of St Andrews, where he took an MA in English literature. Student drama in the early 1980s was a drab “black box and hessian” affair. Paul tore down the hemp and swathed the college theatre in cloth-of-gold, most notably for a staggeringly precocious production of Dryden’s Amphitryon (baroque to his soul, Paul loved nothing better than a deus ex machina).
His talent was nurtured by Malcolm Edwards, a London director then working in St Andrews, and soon Paul was moonlighting in West End shows. Friends stuck doggedly to the narrative, in lectures and tutorials, that Paul was “just parking, and would be along presently”, but the gaff was blown when, in his final term, he arrived to register for exams in the English department; barely acquainted with the building, he swept, rather grandly, into a broom cupboard (and was too embarrassed to come out).
On graduating, he studied stage design with Margaret “Percy” Harris at the Riverside Studios, London, and after an indecently short period in fringe theatre, flipped into the fast-stream. Rarely sleeping, fuelled by Nescafé and pastry, he was unimaginably prolific. In 2004 alone, Paul had 21 separate operas playing in the UK, Verona, Chicago, Paris, New York, Sydney, Madrid, Bologna, Amsterdam and San Francisco. In 2013 he won the Royal Designer for Industryaward for his role in fostering UK set and costume design on the world stage.
In his late 30s, Paul found great happiness with Andy Cordy, an artist, and they celebrated their civil partnership in 2006. They lived in a 15th-century manor house in Pembrokeshire with assorted poultry, and dogs called Merkin and Fecal. (“They’re Welsh names,” Paul always assured interested, non-Welsh children.) The creative hub was a London basement, thick with fumes from spray-mount and lined with glowing jars of pigment like an alchemist’s cell. Costume-drawings, which he often undertook in bed, were a form of meditation for Paul; worked up in coloured pencil line by line and layer by layer, sketches took on the depth and shine of silk, velvet or feathers. Pencils reduced to stubs were honourably retired to the Tin of the Little Heroes.
Paul was diagnosed with cancer in December 2015. He worked, as he wished, to the end. It is hard for so many of his friends to think there will be no more calls pinging in from airport lounges around the world, starting, always, with the same, Peter Pan crow (“It’s me!”) and ending in a firework spatter of farewells (“Bye now, bye-bye, bye … bye”). Paul was not only the most influential stage designer of his generation, and a generous mentor, but also an extravagant gift of a friend.
Paul is survived by Andy, his mother and his sister, Jane.
• Paul Gareth Brown, stage designer, born 13 May 1960; died 13 November 2017