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Leading Light with…Mike Robertson – Part Two

Playhouse

The Wood Demon by Chekhov marked Mike’s West End debut.

For the next few years, Mike continued to divide his time from the Phoenix to lighting shows on the side, commenting: “I would use all of my free time and holidays to light anything that was offered to me”. Mike’s next big break would come from his friend Felicity Field. He states: “She had been chosen by the new owners of the Playhouse to be the CSM for their inaugural productions and, bless her heart, she had them interview me for the LD role. I got the job! We opened with Chekhov’s The Wood Demon featuring a luminous cast and a cavernous timber set. It was my first show in the West End and a daunting one to begin with. That said, I was proud of what I did and it meant people saw my work and marked the beginning of creating a profile”.

Following this exposure, Mike found himself in popular demand and his work would soon take him across the globe. He states: “In 1999, we were asked to take an all-black version of The Magic Flute to the Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe. There were venues there including Harare Gardens where we were to perform the opera outdoors. The organisers asked me if I would do a bit more than just light this one show and approached me to supervise the other venues as well as create infrastructures for other productions. The days were long with rehearsals and fit outs extending through the nights for weeks to come. Yet it was all worth it. Our show was magical and had an audience of thousands all sat on the grass of this vast arena as the Queen of the Night appeared high above the stage towering over everyone in the trees”.

Mike would also work at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo where he had developed a close working-relationship with Head of Lighting Terje Wolmer. Mike adds: “I began to feel extremely comfortable with both working on a scale far larger than I had in the UK as well as working in other countries. Wherever you find yourself, most people seem to be trying to achieve the same result, just with different methods. As the saying goes, travel really does expand the mind”.

cast 2

Sunday in the Park with George saw Mike win an Olivier Award.

Despite his growing reputation abroad, Mike would achieve one of his biggest successes back in the UK following his work on Sunday in the Park with George at the Wyndham’s Theatre. He comments: “I co-designed Sunday in the Park with Natasha Chivers (you can read her Leading Light here) and we won the Olivier for it. It was fantastic to receive such recognition as well as have that ‘certificate of competence’ as it were. I see it as a glorious badge of honour to have both now and in the future and it’s something I’m very proud of. I’ve been lucky to also be nominated for others including Creative Scotland and WhatsOnStage Awards through the years too”.

Looking through Mike’s impressive credits, whether it is Oedipus, Billy Liar, Honeymoon in Vegas, Fascinating Aida, The Philanthropist or Hairspray in the Far East or even the European premiere of The Perfect Life, it’s difficult to pick any one highlight. However, he himself has one show which stands out from the rest. Mike states: “I always remember the stage adaptation of On the Waterfront which was written by Steven Berkoff with whom I have collaborated on many productions. Performed on a very simple open stage, we worked together to make the lighting define the geography and emotion of the play. We started out in Nottingham Playhouse before tours, international outings and a London run. I saw the whole thing in my head as a three dimensional film noir. I designed it around a bunch of VL3500s that would produce coloured shapes to define places, objects, times or sentiments which, when transitioning from one scene to the next, would move and reshape in vision as continuously as the sprockets of film running through a projector. One reviewer said the lighting was the seventh character in the play”. Despite his amazing credits, Mike is keen to emphasise that there are certain shows that don’t bring back such fond memories. He states: “One show that stands out for the wrong reasons was All Bob’s Women. It has the proud mantle of being the only show in West End history to close in the interval. It was a remake of the original Italian version and it’s safe to say that something was most definitely lost in translation…”.

OTW TRH2

On the Waterfront is one of Mike’s proudest shows.

As Mike has worked on such a wide variety of productions across the globe, I ask him what his approach to lighting a show is. He has a very clear answer: “Truth. If I don’t believe what I’m looking at then I can’t expect an audience to. We live in a great age where older distinctions about how you approach certain genres has all but fallen away and you’re as likely to take an operatic or balletic approach to a play IF it feels like the right thing to do. I have little or no belief in an adherence to style but I have a completely unwavering view in how you approach the work. For me, it’s about finding that source of inspiration. For instance, I’ll trawl galleries until something pings and London is a magnificent city in which to do that. Years ago I was lighting an April De Angelis play about David Garrick’s acting company A Laughing Matter so I would immerse myself in the music of the time and made a visit to Sir John Soane’s museum to study Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. Even though the paintings are from an earlier time, the sentiment of decline and indeed the brief nature of a life helped me to find the truest light in which to reveal the play”. It is no surprise then that Mike describes his lighting style as “painterly”. He explains: “I almost always relate a play/scene/song back to a painting and then work it out from there. I avoid rigid concepts such as the Victorian ‘science’ of ‘Colour Music’ which advocated the notion that a pitch of note can be related symbiotically to a wavelength of light. This doesn’t ring true to me as it doesn’t take objectivity into account. If I said green, you might think of envy and I might think of parsley. Equally, if we were hearing a G Sharp, then one of us may see a purple light and the other a primary red. How you respond is what makes us all idiosyncratic. Ultimately, I think we create art because we doubt. By painting pictures with light, time and time again, I believe we get closer to the truth”.

Guys Dolls (34)

Guys and Dolls at Cambridge Arts Theatre

And so comes the point in Leading Light where I ask Mike the question I put to every Lighting Designer: what advice does he have for the next generation? He states: “This is a long game. If things don’t pan out straight away (and they may not), just keep smiling and do not despair because you can be doing this job in your 80s. No one will tell you to retire and, unlike other crafts, longevity is highly prized. For me, a stable home life is a good thing as are family and good friends. It’s also important to remember to have a life outside theatre. I try to travel as much as I can and I also love cooking which is my main passion (I’m always in the kitchen!). Similarly, while you might not be immediately lighting a big hit in the West End, there are other ways in which you can earn a living from lighting. There is always money to be made in the corporate sector to subsidise the progression of your career in theatre. Light anything and everything (within reason) and, often as not, you turn your back for five minutes and the career is sustaining itself. Frequently it also requires you to perform a nimble high wire act and jump from project to project or even give the appearance of being in two or more places at once. Many have done it and will continue in that vein. Not all of it will be great, some of it will be downright awful but why not make the lighting the best bit of it? As Sophocles wrote – ‘The journey’s good to teach us something’. I agree!”.

And on that philosophical note, it seems like an appropriate way to conclude this month’s Leading Light. Echoing his own advice, Mike is actually about to embark on a non-theatrical project. He states: “Alongside eight more shows this year, I’m designing the lighting for a Piccadilly Nightclub – something I’m very excited about. Whatever project I’m working on, for me, it’s about ensuring that the beauty and quality of light is the main focus and that we don’t lose this. We’re entering an increasingly digital age and we humans remain analogue machines, full of errors and imperfections and so much of our happiness in life and light comes from those qualities.”

Photos courtesy of ActDrop, Alastair Muir, Holly Poe Durbin, Julian Slade, Mike’s dad, Nicky Bunch and Tristram Kenton.