Obituary: Hayden Griffin, theatre designer

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Born: 23 January, 1943, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Died: 24 March, 2013, in London, aged 70.

Hayden Griffin was a costume and stage designer whose work was seen widely in theatre, opera and ballet. He had the knack of bringing together the authors’ and directors’ vision of a piece with sets that created evocative and tantalising stage images. He knew costumes had to look natural when worn by performers and allow for ease of breathing, gestures and movement.

Griffin designed many acclaimed productions at London’s National Theatre soon after it had opened and was one of the first to use its large spaces successfully.

Griffin worked extensively in Scotland and is particularly remembered for his work at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, where he designed nine productions.

All concentrated the eye on the stage action and he brought to the productions a very distinct and personal style. As The Scotsman critic said of Educating Agnes, Liz Lochhead’s glorious Scottish take on Molière’s School for Wives in 2011, “Griffin captures the gender wars of the past 40 years and boasts the kind of witty old-Edinburgh set that delights audiences.”

At the Lyceum Griffin worked closely with the director Kenny Ireland, as was witnessed in Romeo and Juliet (with James McAvoy and Kananu Kirimi) in 2010 sets described as “disturbingly beautiful concrete”.

The following year The Comedy of Errors was directed by Tony Cownie and starred Jimmy Chisholm. Earlier Howard Barker’s seldom performed Victory was given a dynamic production by Ireland in sets by Griffin that adeptly captured the bleak, menacing nature of the play.

Other productions at the Lyceum included The Government Inspector, The Iceman Cometh, Macbeth and Glengarry Glenross. The company’s production of How Mad Tulloch Was Taken Away by John Morris was seen at the 1975 Edinburgh Festival starring Rikki Fulton, as was The Voysey Inheritance, directed by William Gaskill –both given vibrant stage realisations by Griffin.

In 2008 he designed a curved wooden structure for Ireland’s Sunset Song that toured throughout Scotland. It proved wonderfully flexible and dramatic.

Hayden Griffin was born in Natal, studied at Durban College of Art and moved to London in 1965 to study stage design.

He trained at the Sadler’s Wells Design Course and within two years was a lecturer, running the course with Harris. In later years Griffin also lectured at the London Film School.

Griffin’s first designs were seen at the London’s Royal Court Theatre, where he designed premieres such as Edward Bond’s political satire Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968) and in the following year he designed Bond’s Bingo, which was first seen at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and transferred to the Royal Court in 1974. The director William Gaskill and Griffin formed a close working relationship and often worked at the National Theatre. One of their early successes was the 1974 production of Harley Granville Barker’s The Madras House, starring Paul Scofield, which won the Plays and Players design award.

For Hare and Howard Brenton’s Plenty (1978) Griffin designed an epic set in which the star, Kate Nelligan, was parachuted into “France”. For the final scene Griffin spectacularly transformed the stage from a gloomy hotel foyer to war-torn fields.

In all, Griffin designed eight world premieres – notably Pravda (1985) – for the National Theatre and is particularly remembered on the South Bank for his dramatic designs for King Lear in 1986, which starred Anthony Hopkins. Griffin covered the
Olivier stage in four huge sails that rose, billowed and folded into beguiling abstract shapes reflecting the light and casting ominous shadows. Hovering over Lear throughout was a seated angel.

Griffin’s work for the opera included two major productions for the Royal Opera. Falstaff in 1982 saw the return to the opera house of Carlo Maria Giulini for the first time in 18 years.

It was a major international event and the production was also seen in Los Angeles and Florence. Griffin created sets of grace and wit, culminating in a magical transformation to the Windsor Forest in the last act. Griffin also designed Parsifal at Covent Garden. His work for ballet was principally with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

There he brought much wit to the animal costumes and masks for David Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Café. The two collaborated on many other ballets, including Hobson’s Choice and Cyrano for the Royal Ballet.

Griffin worked in films including Wetherby with Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench and Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy with Mark Rylance.

He was twice married and is survived by his second wife Fiona and their son, along with three children from his marriage to Carol Lawrence.

ALASDAIR STEVEN