Abd'elkader Farrah - an appreciation

ABD'ELKADER Farrah was the most complete man of the theatre it has been my privilege to know. His fame as one of the world's top stage designers sometimes obscured the fact that he was much more than that. Gifted with a brilliant visual imagination, he also had an instinctive insight into the nature of the dramatist and the craft of acting and directing.

This was nurtured from an early age when, with his brothers, he formed a small touring company which performed all over his native Algeria. On coming to Europe, he worked for nine years in Strasbourg with Michel Saint-Denis and it was Michel (on becoming one of Peter Hall's triumvirate at the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961) who invited him to design his production of The Cherry Orchard in Stratford's winter season, which later transferred to the Aldwych in London's West End.

In 1962, he designed Christopher Fry's Curtmantle for the RSC, which opened at the Edinburgh Festival. When, in 1963, he designed Brook's production of The Tempest (in which I played Prospero) at Stratford, we became close friends. Eighteen months later, in the summer of 1965, he accepted my invitation to come to Edinburgh as head of design at the formation of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company. Working with a young team of Scottish designers, he created (in make-shift workshops in a disused warehouse on the site of what became the bus station) a brilliant department which produced such innovative work, using revolutionary materials, that Franco Zeffirelli sent his assistant north to find out what we were up to.

Abd'el's designs for Galileo (which The Queen came to see), The Magnolia Tree and The Burdies were breathtaking. But perhaps his genius was most apparent when he suggested doing something that turned out to be a first in Europe. He insisted that our Christmas production, Rumplestiltskin, should be designed (costumes, masks and sets) by children from Edinburgh's Primary Schools. The upper age-limit for competitors was to be nine. (After nine, he said, children's ideas become derivative). Each school was sent a synopsis of the story and the winning designs, chosen from over 4,000 entries, were to be strictly adhered to without compromise or adaptation. The result was that packed Lyceum audiences, children and adults, saw startlingly original and surrealist theatre design in vivid psychedelic colours and found themselves cheering!

During his time at the Lyceum, Farrah was known affectionately by Scottish actors as "McNabdel". Years later he sent me a postcard from Athens where he was designing a vast production in an ancient amphitheatre. It said simply: "Greetings from the Edinburgh of the South". All who knew and loved him, not least myself, are the poorer for his passing.