As he peers dreamily into the scaled down black and white model for his set design of Dundee Rep’s forthcoming production of Anna Karenina, you can see entire worlds come to life in his eyes. Moving around pieces of tiny furniture inside the model’s square box interior, it’s as if Lowde has become a character in some childlike epic centred around fantasy-fuelled princelings who conjure up magic from their toy theatre as they sit around the fireside.
As it is, the bright meeting room at the top of the Rep building may spoil the ambience, but Tolstoy’s own epic yarn as translated by Jo Clifford is probably enough to be getting on with anyway, both in full size and in the miniature replica that sits before us.
“It’s vast,” Lowde murmurs, just out of a costume fitting with the cast and director Jemima Levick, with whom he is collaborating for a sixth time at Dundee following work on Equus, The Elephant Man, A Doll’s House and the Christmas shows where they initiated their partnership, Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. “There are a huge number of costumes to deal with, because everyone makes such a journey between town and country, and we’re trying to reflect that. The town’s heavy and black and quite depressive, whereas the country’s lighter and the fabrics are less dense and freer. So we’re just trying to characterise the environment because it’s all going to be performed in the one space.”
For a work as big as Anna Karenina, it would be easy to overload the stage with period clutter. This isn’t Lowde’s way. Anyone who saw Equus, with its in-the-round arena where Peter Shaffer’s psycho-sexual drama could be played out, or the two-tiered ideal home in Levick’s Mad Men style reappropriation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, or the wide open Victorian asylum of The Elephant Man will be aware of Lowde’s ability to bring a play’s visual elements to the fore without swamping the writing.
“If you look back,” Lowde says of his researches into the period Anna Karenina is set in, “everything was so ornate and well-crafted, with so much work done on everything to make it so incredibly decorative. But we wanted things to be more fluid, so we’ve stripped it right back to be a kind of period silhouette. There’s no detail on it”.
One thing Lowde has introduced into Anna Karenina are a series of audio-visual back projections. “It’s such an epic story that needs a real sweep,” he observes.
Lowde grew up in Hemel Hempstead and studied drama at Hull University before a design degree in London that was a natural extension of his boyhood pursuits.
“Even as a kid I made models out of cornflakes boxes,” he says, “and would imagine there was some kind of drama going on in the street or down the road. As a child I did it through play, and I just carried on doing it because I really enjoy it. Each production is a puzzle that needs to be unpicked and how you fit it into a space needs to be solved.”
Lowde’s early working days were somewhat surprisingly spent as an assistant designer on touring commercial shows such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mamma Mia, when a show would need to be adapted from venue to venue. “That was an education in itself,” Lowde says, “but you can’t do it forever. I had to get out to do my own work.”
Once off the commercial treadmill, Lowde worked with Paines Plough, Newcastle Playhouse, the Young Vic, Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House. The Dundee connection came about by a happy accident after Levick was contacted by Lowde’s agent while she was shopping for a designer to take on Beauty and the Beast. “We met and went through his portfolio,” Levick recalls, “and I loved his work. His attention to detail is amazing, he’s incredibly economical about what he uses, and the things he does are really distilled, but there’s a style to them as well. I can propose a concept, like with Equus I really wanted to do it in the round and try to get away from the play’s 1970s roots, and he can build from that and give it a contemporary edge.”
Lowde’s other work in Scotland includes Sam Holcroft’s play, While You Lie, at the Traverse, and a co-production between Scottish Opera and Opera North of Janacek’s The Adventures of Mr Broucek, which Lowde describes as one of his more stylised projects.
“Ideally I like to do things in a contemporary way,” he says. “I don’t see any point in doing period drama per se, doing it straight, or doing things in a filmic way, because you may as well do film. I like to do things that are clean and crisp. Having said that a lot of the things I’ve done here are some of the more naturalistic environments I’ve designed. I love a lot of design for dance. People like Wayne McGregor, I think it’s amazing that he can produce such spare, clean evocative spaces which can still be abstract. There’s something about the cleanness of the dance world I love.”
With such a varied body of work, while there is plenty of personality in each design, there are no discernible signature tics that you might see coming from other designers. Lowde puts this down to the sheer open-ness of the Rep stage.
“As a designer you’re completely free here,” he says. Jemima very generous with her creative team, and very open, and that gets the best out of us. We keep on having to push ourselves and challenging ourselves to do things differently.”
Just how free Lowde will continue to be in the current economic climate remains to be seen.
“People are being more cautious about the work they’re doing since the cuts,” he says. “In opera in particular there are a lot more revivals now. I did an opera last year based around Alzheimer’s, and I’m not sure if anyone would take a chance on something like that now.”
Beyond Anna Karenina, Lowde is working on a production of Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters at a new performing space at York University. While there are no plans for Lowde to work in Scotland again, one project he might want thrown his way is Phaedre, another epic tragedy with a woman at its centre. What does Lowde think design can bring to such a big work?
“I think it can evoke a mood around it,” he says. “This play has such an emotional heart and everything’s in such flux, and I hope the design can support that. There’s something practical about making things I love. All that black and white, you just have to keep that simmering along with that sense of pervading doom.”
Anna Karenina, Dundee Rep, May 23-June 11.