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White Light in the Frame for Photograph 51

White Light in the Frame for Photograph 51
White Light in the Frame for Photograph 51

Recently, Photograph 51 opened at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End to rave reviews. Marking Nicole Kidman’s first appearance on the London stage for more than 17 years, Photograph 51 tells the extraordinary story of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who cracked DNA and the sacrifices she made in the pursuit of her place within scientific history. The play is being produced by the Michael Grandage Company and this current run marks its UK premiere. As the leading lighting supplier to the West End, White Light was called upon to provide the lighting equipment for this greatly-anticipated production.

The show was lit by Tony and Olivier award-winning lighting designer Neil Austin, who has an extensive history of working with WL. He most recently worked on the critically-acclaimed Bend It Like Beckham, a show which WL also supplied the lighting equipment for. He comments: “Photograph 51 is an interesting show as it is told as a posthumous memory by the other scientists around Rosalind. It flicks between character dialogue to direct audience address to scenes of memories of the past. Therefore, telling this interwoven story theatrically allowed for some really exciting opportunities in terms of the lighting design.”

The lighting became an intricate part of the show, as Neil utilised it to help the audience members differentiate between the various time zones and locations on stage. Neil comments: “With the lighting, I wanted to help delineate between time and location and indicate who was being addressed and when. It needed to be subtle enough not to become jarring but obvious enough to help the audience navigate the intricacies of the narrative.”

Neil worked alongside production electrician Rich Mence and programmer Daniel Haggerty and, in order to realise the fairly complex lighting design, drew on WL’s unparalleled range of lighting technology. This included ETC Revolutions, Vari*Lite VL11000AS ERS, DHA Digital Light Curtains, an ETC Ion 2K Console and an Atmosphere Haze machine. He comments: “WL’s extensive equipment helped make my vision a reality. For the posthumous narration parts of the show, the Vari*Lite VL11000AS ERS created a strong blue arc-source look which gave a sense of otherness and the after-life. The ETC Revolutions and DLCs gave a warm tungsten sepia glow which worked ideally for capturing the sense of a remembered past.”

The complex lighting set-up was not the only challenging aspect of this new production. Neil comments: “The entire play takes place in a unit-set of the blackened, bombed out basement space within Kings College University. The set designer Christopher Oram added to this an entire frosted polycarbonate floor underlit with RGBA LED tape.  This was fantastic to help delineate space and time with colour and shape, but it meant I had a huge amount of very soft uplighting to contend with, the opposite of the specificity of theatre lighting you usually attempt. Fortunately the equipment WL supplied meant that I could still achieve my lighting design, even with these external factors.”

Following its critically-acclaimed opening, Photograph 51 will run until 21st November. It is one of 17 shows that WL is currently providing the lighting equipment for in the West End, which includes Les MisérablesWar Horse, Matilda and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Neil comments: “I have always had a great experience working with WL ever since my school days and I did once again on this show. They are the first company you think of when it comes to theatre lighting equipment and utilising their resources and expertise is always a pleasure."

photos: Johan Persson

23rd September 2015

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