Set designer Timothy O’Brien, who died of prostate cancer at the age of 93, was the latest in an extraordinary post-war generation of innovative and influential designers – Sean Kenny, John Bury, Ralph Koltai – which completely transformed the look of our theater today: they replaced the pictorial and decorative theater of designers such as Oliver Messel, Leslie Hurry and Roger Furse, with raked (and bare) stages, gallery artifacts of art and symbolic statuary, new technologies, platforms and trucks, stone, wood and leather.
O’Brien engineered the first production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964); the first London revival of Waiting for Godot by Beckett, also in 1964, with Nicholas Williamson, with a real rock of stone and a barely perceived tree (“My last tree was by Giacometti”, said the playwright); and the Covent Garden premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970), using a belt rope background and a powerfully projected image of the sun shining through a high canopy of beech trees to bring the scene to life in the spirit of the music.
Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1965, he was involved in several of the greatest productions of the next 10 years: the poetically dark and gritty Days in the Trees (1966) by Marguerite Duras, with a luminescent Peggy Ashcroft; a still unequaled John Barton directed by Richard II (1973), Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating the roles of king and his usurper, Bolingbroke, the design perfectly reflecting this seesaw maneuver of ascent and decline; another shimmering forest in Gorky’s Summerfolk, revived by David Jones in 1974.
As Trevor Nunn has observed, it was in musical theater – West End and opera – that the rise of a new design philosophy was most felt, never more so than in the work of O’ Brien with Tazeena Firth, his second wife and design partner, and with Hal Princethe director, on Evita (1978) by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It was an austere and brilliant Brechtian staging, using film and photography, a revolving door for quick-change generalissimos, processional and choreographic explosions on a dark stage, the fateful balcony of the Casa Rosada for the many Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina, scaffolding structures and dazzling white-outs instead of black-outs at the end of the scenes.
O’Brien and Firth were an established team by then, having worked together—equal parts on sets and costumes—on many RSC shows: a beautifully costumed Merchant of Venice with Emrys James and Judi Dench; George Etherege’s restoration classic, A Man of Mode, with John Wood and Helen Mirren; a superb, gritty cover of Barton’s seminal work, Troilus and Cressida; and the merry Windsor wives of the suburbs, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Brenda Bruce, resplendent in ruffs, heavily brocaded skirts and tall hats.
In 1975, O’Brien was co-winner of the gold medal at the Prague Quadrennial. It was a significant recognition for British theater design after years of playing second fiddle to Italian, French and Eastern European designers. He went on to complete an astonishing list of major collaborations at British theaters and opera houses around the world with the eminent directors Elijah Moshinsky (over 16 years); Stone Room (30 years); Sponge hands (34 years old); and Barton (39, the first being a Comedy of Errors student at Cambridge in 1949).
Another notable collaborator over the past 30 years has been Graham Vicdirector of Birmingham City Opera, culminating in a Ring cycle in Lisbon in 2009. O’Brien never stopped working, completing, before Covid intervened, a stunning production of Wagner’s Parsifal with Vick at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, in January 2020. O’Brien exploited the Roman architecture of this huge and timeless space with axes of medieval iconography, exposed lighting, a movable Brechtian half-curtain for scene changes and Amfortas , king of the Grail Knights, resembling the naked body of the crucified Saviour.
O’Brien was born in Shillong, India, to a family of colonial administrators on his mother’s side and soldiers on his father’s side. Elinor, née Mackenzie, met Brian Palliser Tieghe O’Brien in India; later, during World War II, he was an intelligence officer in the 8th Battalion of Gurkhas. Timothy, who aspired to become a field marshal, was sent to the University of Wellington (1942-47) and posted to Austria.
Abandoning military ambitions, he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1949-52), where he skimped on studies and began designing plays. He won a Henry Fellowship at Yale, the first such fellow to go there as an intern theater designer. He returned from Yale with a full portfolio of designs, which he peddled around town in a large wooden box.
Of his own free will, he ‘missed’ a job in the BBC’s television design department, thanks to a cousin then living with John Mills’ sister, Annette, who manipulated a BBC puppet called Muffin the Mule. He continued as a designer in 1954 with the new Independent Television Trade Authority and partnered with future director Richard Lester. He became head of design at ABC, where he designed 90 minutes of live drama, once a month, for Armchair Theater.
In 1964 he contributed to the major Shakespeare Quatercentenary exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon, when he was invited to design Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court and then joined Hall as an associate artist at the RSC. The following years of RSC in Stratford and London (at the Aldwych) were heady times. In the 1969 season alone, he crafted three striking productions of Pericles (bare-butted soldiers in a white box with a tiled floor), Middleton’s lustful Women Beware Women (straight furniture, checkerboard floor) and a Ben Jonson’s tumultuous Bartholomew Fair.
Those RSC days of rich and rewarding repertoire, imaginative design and great playing are a thing of the past, although O’Brien remained attached to the company as an honorary associate in 1988. From 1974 he designed more at the National Theatre, notably Hall’s superb icy and lunar version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman with Ralph Richardson, Wendy Hillier and Ashcroft.
But his more radical design work was increasingly visible in opera: The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden, directed by Moshinsky, combined semi-abstract 18th-century chamber theater with realistic acquisition trophies; Puccini’s Turandot at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Hal Prince, featured a vengeful populace wearing masks and sequined garments (each sequin was two inches in diameter) like tragic chameleons; and in György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at English National Opera, a world on the brink of destruction was evoked with only a highway remaining above the urban debris.
O’Brien was an accomplished draughtsman, often producing a design directly on paper and translating the model directly to the stage with little modification. He was lightly built, self-contained, and quietly competitive. With civil engineer and designer Chris Wise, he particularly enjoyed one of his later projects, the redevelopment of the garden site of Shakespeare’s home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon.
His eldest brother, Robin, a Cambridge rookie in cricket and golf, predeceased him. Timothy himself was an above-average opening batsman who, in a talk at Dartington Hall in 2016, defined his purpose in life as “seeking the beautiful and the good in the service of a higher reality” . He was, as they say, a serious man.
Her first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth and Catherine; and by his third wife, theater and interior designer Jenny Jones who, after training at Motley School of Theater Design, was Timothy’s creative assistant for eight years before marrying in 1997. Together they built a home, and a new home, in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.