Timothy O’Brien obituary

The stage designer Timothy O’Brien, who has died of prostate cancer aged 93, was the last of an extraordinary postwar generation of innovative and influential designers – Sean Kenny, John Bury, Ralph Koltai – who utterly transformed the way our theatre looks today: they displaced the pictorial and decorative theatre of such designers as Oliver Messel, Leslie Hurry and Roger Furse, with raked (and bare) stages, art gallery artefacts and symbolic statuary, new technology, platforms and trucks, stone, wood and leather.

O’Brien designed the first production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964); the first London revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, also in 1964, starring Nicol Williamson, with a real stone rock and a faintly perceived tree (“My last tree was by Giacometti,” said the playwright); and the Covent Garden premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970), using a backdrop of sash cord and a powerfully projected image of sun shining through a high canopy of beech trees to bring the stage alive in the spirit of the music.

An associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1965, he was involved in many of the greatest productions of the following 10 years: the poetically bleak and grainy Days in the Trees (1966) by Marguerite Duras, with a luminescent Peggy Ashcroft; a still unmatched John Barton production of Richard II (1973), Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating in the roles of the king and his usurper, Bolingbroke, the design reflecting perfectly that seesaw manoeuvre of ascent and decline; another shimmering forest in Gorky’s Summerfolk, revived by David Jones in 1974.

As Trevor Nunn has observed, it was in the musical theatre – West End and operatic – that the surge of a new design ethos was most felt, never more so than in O’Brien’s work with Tazeena Firth, his second wife and design partner, and with Hal Prince, the director, on Evita (1978) by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This was a stark, brilliant Brechtian staging, using film and photography, a revolving door for quick-change generalissimos, processional and choreographic explosions on a dark stage, the fateful balcony at the Casa Rosada for the big number Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina, scaffolded structures and dazzling “white-outs” instead of black-outs at the end of scenes.

O’Brien and Firth were an established team by then, having worked together – equal responsibility on sets and costumes – on many RSC shows: a beautifully costumed Merchant of Venice with Emrys James and Judi Dench; George Etherege’s Restoration classic, A Man of Mode, with John Wood and Helen Mirren; a superb, gritty revival of Barton’s signature play, Troilus and Cressida; and a rumbustiously suburban Merry Wives of Windsor, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Brenda Bruce resplendent in ruffs, heavily brocaded skirts and big hats.

In 1975, O’Brien was joint winner of the gold medal at the Prague Quadrennial. This was an important recognition for British theatre design after years of playing second fiddle to Italian, French and eastern European designers. He went on to complete an astonishing roster of major collaborations in UK theatres and opera houses around the world with the eminent directors Elijah Moshinsky (across 16 years); Peter Hall (30 years); Terry Hands (34 years); and Barton (39 years, the first being a student Comedy of Errors in Cambridge in 1949).

Another notable collaborator over the last 30 years was Graham Vick, director of the Birmingham city opera, culminating in a Ring cycle in Lisbon in 2009. O’Brien never stopped working, completing, before Covid intervened, an astounding production of Wagner’s Parsifal with Vick at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, in January 2020. O’Brien exploited the Roman architecture of that huge and timeless space with shafts of medieval iconography, exposed lighting, a mobile Brechtian half curtain for scene changes, and Amfortas, king of the Grail knights, resembling the naked body of the crucified Saviour.

O’Brien was born, in Shillong, India, into a family of colonial administrators on his mother’s side and soldiers on his father’s. Elinor, nee Mackenzie, met Brian Palliser Tieghe O’Brien in India; later, during the second world war, he was an intelligence officer in the 8th battalion of Gurkhas. Timothy, who longed to be a field marshal, was packed off to Wellington college (1942-47), and posted to Austria.

Forsaking military ambitions, he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1949-52), where he skimped on studies and started designing plays. He won a Henry fellowship to Yale, the first such fellow ever to go there as a trainee theatre designer. He returned from Yale with a full portfolio of designs and models, which he hawked around town in a large wooden box.

Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden, 1970.
Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden, 1970. Photograph: Mike McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Self-confessedly, he “fluked” a job in the BBC television design department, thanks to a cousin then living with John Mills’s sister, Annette, who manipulated a BBC puppet called Muffin the Mule. He continued as a designer in 1954 with the newly formed commercial Independent Television Authority and teamed up with the future film director Richard Lester. He became head of design at ABC, where he designed 90 minutes of live drama, once a month, for Armchair Theatre.

In 1964, he was contributing to the great Shakespeare Quatercentenary Exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon, when he was invited to design Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court and then to join Hall as an associate artist at the RSC. The following RSC years in Stratford and London (at the Aldwych) were heady times. In the 1969 season alone he designed three striking Hands productions of Pericles (bare-bottomed soldiers in a white box with a tiled floor), Middleton’s lubricious Women Beware Women (upright furniture, a chessboard floor) and a tumultuous Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson.

Those RSC days of rich, rewarding repertoire, imaginative design and great acting are a thing of the past, though O’Brien remained attached to the company as an honorary associate in 1988. From 1974, he designed more at the National Theatre, notably Hall’s great icy, moonstruck version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman with Ralph Richardson, Wendy Hiller and Ashcroft.

But his more radical design work was increasingly seen in the opera house: The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden, directed by Moshinsky, matched an 18th-century semi-abstract chamber theatre with realistic trophies of acquisition; Puccini’s Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, directed by Hal Prince, featured a vengeful populace in masks and sequinned clothing (each sequin was two inches in diameter) as tragic chameleons; and in György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at English National Opera, a world on the brink of destruction was conjured with only a motorway remaining above the urban debris.

O’Brien was a consummate draftsman, often producing a design straight off on paper and translating the model straight to the stage with few alterations. He was slightly built, self-contained, and quietly competitive. With the civil engineer and designer Chris Wise he particularly enjoyed one of his later projects, the redevelopment of the garden site in Shakespeare’s home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

His elder brother, Robin, a Cambridge blue in cricket and golf, predeceased him. Timothy himself was an above-average opening batsman who, in a lecture at Dartington Hall in 2016, defined his purpose in life as “seeking the beautiful and the good in the service of a higher reality”. He was, as they used to say, un homme sérieux.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth and Catherine; and by his third wife, the theatre and interior designer Jenny Jones who, after training at the theatre design school of Motley, acted as Timothy’s creative assistant for eight years before they married in 1997. Together, they built a house, and a new home, in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.

• Timothy Brian O’Brien, stage designer, born 8 March 1929; died 14 October 2022