Razor sharp designs on The Barber of Seville

Rhys Jarman's eye-ctaching new stage designs for The Barber of Seville will provide a dramatic backdrop to the performances. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Facing and conquering a challenge is something which makes designer Rhys Jarman happy. A softly-spoken and modest person, there is also an underlying sense of wanting to bring something new to every production he works on.

And Rhys is certainly aiming to do that with The Barber of Seville which takes to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage on April 10 as part of the latest double-bill visit by the English Touring Opera.

It tells the story of the resourceful barber who aims to help a lovestruck count woo an intelligent beauty — even though she has been promised to her miserly guardian.

The production is complimented by a production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin on the Theatre Royal stage the following evening.

Although The Barber of Seville has a very traditional setting, English Touring Opera wanted to give its design a modern twist and that is where Rhys came in.

He is no stranger to designing for the genre but where does he start with a project such as The Barber of Seville?

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'The first stage is really listening to the piece as much as I can so that I can really absorb the script and the score. It gives you a much clearer idea of what it is you are designing,' Rhys explained.

From there, it is a case of putting together the finished design and pulling together the style of the piece bringing the traditional and the modern together.

'It needs to be fresh and full of space to allow the music and comedy to breathe and stand on its own. It took me a long time to work it all out.'

The current project is one of many that he is working on and admits he is taking on a dream job designing for a living. Looking back to his schooldays, he said: 'I always enjoyed art. I studied it at GCSE and then did a foundation course. I always wanted to do something that would let me work in all sorts of different disciplines.'

From there, he did his design training with his work first coming to prominence when he gained the prestigious Linbury Prize in 2007 which is given to promising final-year students and graduates doing theatre design courses.

His portfolio has since included a wide range of other projects including The Sleeper for Welsh National Opera, and The Bear for The Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House.

He admits: 'It is an interesting thing to work on from a design point-of-view. Opera gives you a really wonderful set of parameters. It is quite nice to have quite clear goalposts sometimes and then being able to bring something new to it.'

And the challenge of taking on different work is also brought into sharp focus with one of his current projects – Missing for Gecko Theatre.

Co-commissioned by Ipswich-based Dance East and the New Wolsey Theatre, it journeys into the psyche of its leading character which is the cue for some floating scenes and outrageous props. Rhys said: 'It is a fantastic piece to work on but it is the complete opposite of The Barber of Seville.'

There is no doubt it is this variety of work which keeps Rhys firing on all cylinders.

'At the moment, I am working on lots of mad productions. I think I just enjoy working on a wide range of different work,' he says. 'While it keeps coming in and I keep getting exciting work, that can only be good.'

But there is one project on Rhys's design CV that does stick out when he got involved in set design for series five of Doctor Who — the first full season featuring former UEA student Matt Smith. Rhys recalls: 'That was a whole different kettle of fish. That was a great experience. It is very different from theatre. They have a lot of the same sort of processes but the method is very different. After all, who wouldn't want to spend their time designing spaceships?'

Who indeed — and if a similar challenge cropped up on stage or in opera, you just know Rhys would be up for the task.

n The Barber of Seville is staged at Norwich Theatre Royal on April 10 and Eugene Onegin on April 11, �34-�6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

n Both operas are sung in English.