Designing The Underground Man

Wednesday 21st September 2016

Adapted by Nick Wood from Mick Jackson’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Underground Man presents a set designer with the unique challenge of portraying the complex tunnels of Welbeck Abbey on the small Neville Studio stage. That task has fallen to Harriet Clarke, in her first professional job since graduating from NTU’s Theatre Design course.

The Underground Man is my first professional design job; I was given the chance to work on the play after I was awarded the Nottingham Playhouse Prize – a competition ran in my third year of Nottingham Trent University’s BA Theatre Design course. I was chosen based on my set and costume designs for Moira Buffini’s Welcome To Thebes.

The Underground Man design development process started with a burst of activity, on a development week at Welbeck Abbey, where the main character the 5th Duke of Portland lived. I found it incredibly helpful to hear the script being read aloud, and seeing how the actors used the space. The time also allowed direct collaboration between myself, the writer Nick Wood and Andrew Breakwell the director.

The main design challenge to be resolved was that as The Underground Man is a touring show, it needed to be light, compact and adaptable. This was especially difficult as myself and Andrew wanted the Duke’s chaotic personality to be reflected in the set; for example, his obsessions with technology and medicine. I wanted the set to feel claustrophobic because William is quite literally The Underground Man: a reclusive personality who built a network of tunnels to navigate the Welbeck grounds. By designing areas of detail suggesting Victorian grandeur we avoided smothering the set with objects, allowing the piece to be flexible and go on a journey rather then being stagnant, bogged down by clutter.

Inspiration came from Victorian interiors such as Calke Abbey, as well as Victorian “curiosities” and the collecting unusual objects. Another strong visual was industrial materials found in Victorian steam engines. The mechanical parts of the set contrast with the plush Victorian interiors, showing how the modern world of industrialisation is encroaching on William’s reality.

I’m looking forward to seeing the production fully formed in the Neville Studio, with actors Iain Armstrong and Mick Jasper bringing the world of The Underground Man to life!

The Underground Man runs in the Neville Studio at Nottingham Playhouse from Thu 22 Sep – Sat 8 Oct 2016. Click here to book your tickets.