Interview with set designer and photographer Mark James about the building of the set for The Lace Market Theatre's production of the controversial play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.
Phil Lowe: You were asked to acquire a real caravan for the set. How did that come about?
Mark: The director, Roger Newman and I wanted a real caravan on stage and you can't make up anything really that looks just like a caravan, They are such unique objects, I could spend months making something that perhaps looked like a caravan but wouldn't really. It would be rubbish.
We went through local breakers yards and alerted them to the fact that we wanted a caravan but we didn't get anything from them at all.
Phil Lowe: Did it have to be in a particular style?
Mark: The older the better and I didn't want anything too stylish. I wanted something a bit crap looking. It had to be small as well, about ten foot – not much bigger than that really because of the size of the stage at the Lace Market Theatre. I saw plenty of them which were seventeen feet but they wouldn't fit. It was pointless even thinking about them. Time was ticking on so I started looking on Ebay and the preloved site. This was two or three weeks before the get in, about the end of June. I really wanted it ready, cut up and ready to re-assemble on stage as soon as possible so the actors could get used to it.
Leading up to this period I was getting a bit frantic with me thinking I wasn't going to get my caravan. I must have looked at dozens of caravans mainly on Ebay and contacted some of the sellers mainly about the size. I wasn't having a lot of luck so far. Nothing seemed right.
Phil Lowe: Did you have a budget?
Mark: Sure. The stage budget was £575 for set, props and lighting. I was willing to spend £200 – £250 on the caravan. Then I saw one in Wakefield which had been on the internet for less than an hour and was auctioned or Buy It Now for £30!!! I emailed everyone with the exciting news that I had found one and that it was perfect – well fairly decrepit sort of perfect and not at all road worthy. I didn't wait for a reply. I just went for it. Even if it turned out a bad buy it was worth the risk of £30. The people who were selling it were advertising it as something one could use as a quirky shed on an allotment or as a chicken coop. It was also particularly gutted inside with only a little bit of furniture left attached. This also meant less work for me as set designer and builder.
So when I bought it - it was a case of arranging transport to get it back to Nottingham. We hired a trailer for £48 to tow the caravan and drove up to Wakefield on a Saturday morning to pick up our purchase and to meet the family who were selling it. The caravan turned out to be perfect for me and my purposes. We strapped it on and I reinforced inside with some bracing because apparently, it is the furniture that is the strength of a caravan.
On this road trip was Heidi Hargreaves and Sam Allison. Heidi documented it through her photos. Back in Nottingham we took it to Nick Gales' place of work and we were given permission to use their car park to chop it up as long as we got rid of it by the following Monday. The chopping up was done with an angle grinder lent to us by John Parker who is in the show playing Troy Whitworth. Sam was in the Saturday matinee performance of Rutherford and Son and so he helped us for as long as he dare. Heidi and I started to take the caravan to bits about five o'clock in the evening and on Sunday Austin Booth helped out from 11 to 3pm and by then we had completed the job.
Phil Lowe: How did you plan in re-constructing the caravan after demolishing it?
Mark: Believe it or not I didn't have a plan!!! I had no idea how easy or difficult it would be to put it back together in a safe manner. It had to be very strong generally but also at one point one of the actors sits on top of the caravan. So anyway, we cut it into five pieces and we didn't use the chassis because some actors emerge from under the caravan in the dark and there would have been very sharp bits to contend with. We couldn't afford to have actors injured. To give it all a firm foundation I re-constructed it with an internal timber frame and it is surprisingly sturdy. You could say that it almost slotted back into place, almost.
Phil Lowe: What about the other aspects of the set – the greenery – the general dump of various rubbish around the caravan in the woods?
Just some of the empty cans used on the set of Jerusalem
Everything has had to be Flamebared so that they are not a fire hazard. Flamebar is a liquid that you spray onto materials to reduce the risk of fire on stage. All theatres use this. The main character Johnny 'Rooster' Byron physically sets light to various documents during the play and people smoke so we have had to be particularly careful.
The playing area surrounding the caravan is meant to be a muddy mess due to all the people who party there and I have tried to give it a different dimension with an application of wood bark amongst the detritus that surrounds Rooster's caravan.
Phil Lowe: How have the actors enjoyed working on this most fantastic and most realistic of sets?
Mark: Roger (the director) told me that when they first started rehearsing with it they absolutely loved it and I've tried to create lots of different playing levels on the stage as well. By this I mean different height levels so that people can use them – to pull rank and whatever. Even though it is quite a cluttered stage and it looks like a junk yard I've still tried to leave as much room as possible for the cast to utilise as an acting area. I think it works. Well you will see tonight! Roger has created lovely groupings of people using different parts of the set so I think that it looks fantastic. A true collaboration between everybody.
Big thanks to Mark James for the fascinating interview. Production photos by Mark James. Documentation Caravan photos by Heidi Hargreaves.
End note: I have heard that the owners of the Sprite caravan are coming to see the show on Friday night. I hope that they are impressed with the star of the show - Sprite caravan!
This top quality production runs at The Lace Market Theatre Nottingham from 21st to 26th July 2014.
Box Office 0115 9507201