Timothy O’Brien (Bd 47) 

19 February 2024

O’Brien, left, with the director Peter Hall working on the RSC production of Staircase in 1966; his set for Pericles at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1969. 

Timothy O’Brien learnt his secret of stage design – that the aim is clarity, and the enemy distraction – from Samuel Beckett, the pioneer of post-modern minimalism in theatre. In 1964, O’Brien had returned from a trip to America to find that the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations he had been preparing for the Royal Court was being replaced with Waiting for Godot, one of Beckett’s more absurd creations in which two men from no particular time or place wait for a mysterious character who never arrives. It would be Britain’s first uncensored performance of the play.

Given the quick turnaround, the director Anthony Page suggested O’Brien send photographs of some stage models to the author in Paris. On 4 December, he received a postcard in return. ‘Dear Mr O’Brien,’ wrote Beckett. ‘Thanks for the photos. All much too big and real.’ He instead simply prescribed ‘a faint tree’ upstage, ‘a faint stone’ downstage, and ‘a faint path between’. There should be ‘uninscribed sky and distance, evening light, emptiness at all costs’. Finally, he requested that O’Brien halt any construction until he return to London the following Thursday. O’Brien quickly built a new model with as high a standard of abstinence as he could manage. ‘On Thursday, I took it to a small office high in a theatre, lit by a pale winter sunshine,’ he recalled. ‘The door opened and Beckett stepped into the light. He looked like an eagle, and he was mesmerising.’

Yet when O’Brien showed Beckett the stone, which was made of plaster, the playwright said in his soft Irish lilt: ‘Ah, it should be stone. Cut, so that we can see what it is.’ Driving his Renault into a derelict part of Southwark, O’Brien picked up a heavy stone and transported it back to the theatre. Beckett looked again, and asked to remove the path, which was also made of plaster. ‘When it was gone, the stage cloth bore a beautiful scar,’ said O’Brien. ‘Sam looked at it appreciatively in silence.’ The tree was then cut so that it stood just above stage level, after which the playwright quietly mused: ‘My last tree was by Giacometti.’

The process of extraction was painful and O’Brien said he felt compressed, but it would influence his stage design for decades to come. ‘I realised that he [Beckett] was not only wanting exactly what he was wanting, but he was wanting only what the play needed, and nothing else. And so I found that very chastening in the best sense.’

Timothy Brian O’Brien was born in 1929 in Shillong, India, to Brian O’Brien, a soldier, and Elinor (née Mackenzie). “I remember rutted roads filled with water,” he said. “I can remember a black panther crossing the road in front of our car. I can remember the river steamers on the Brahmaputra, particularly beautiful with their lights on at night.” At the age of four he was sent back to England to be brought up by his grandparents and he hardly saw his parents after that, especially when his father was sent to fight in the Second World War as an intelligence officer with the Gurkhas. His mother’s family had worked as colonial administrators in India for generations and he understood separation from his parents to be a usual part of growing up. “People sometimes say, well wasn’t that rather a pity,” he said. “Well, it was just natural.”

O’Brien was educated at Wellington College, and on leaving, he did two years of National Service in Austria with the Intelligence Corps. He then went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to study History and English. He showed an early interest in drawing and painting and at university took up his mother’s suggestion that he start designing stage sets, working with Peter Hall and John Barton, who were contemporaries. “I arrived in Cambridge very naïve,” he recalled, “but absolutely hell-bent on being a theatre designer.”

After leaving university in 1952, O’Brien won a Henry fellowship to study theatre design at Yale, but back in England he found it impossible to get jobs either with provincial theatres or the West End. He got a job at an advertising agency instead, and found himself writing ‘cod’ and ‘two shilling and ninepence’ over and over again. His break came when he was hired to work with the head of design at BBC TV, a job he got through family connections. “I could only expect to work as an assistant,” he said, “and I don’t like assisting people, so I was bolshy, ignorant and difficult.” O’Brien, a mild-mannered man, would learn to temper such traits.

A year into the job, independent television companies began springing up across the country and his experience became invaluable. In 1956, he was hired as a senior executive at the now long-defunct television production company ABC where, over a 10-year tenure, he designed more than 24 productions. He became skilled at “making things happen” but when Peter Hall, then the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, poached him in 1966, O’Brien had to learn to “decide what should happen”.

In 1978, O’Brien designed the set for Evita, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, with Tazeena Firth, his partner at the time. His first instinct was to turn it down – “Musicals are trouble. What you get are a lot of people drinking whisky in a hotel room at four in the morning, tearing their hair out.” – but the director, Hal Prince, interested him, and with its bare, Brechtian staging, the musical would go on to become his most successful show, harnessing new technologies such as using film and photography and ‘white-outs’ instead of ‘black-outs’. O’Brien also worked with Harold Pinter and John Gielgud and designed operas for Elijah Moshinsky for 16 years. What fuelled him to work well into old age was that each new production offered a fresh start. “All is lost, all is vanished, all is forgiven, now we go again,” he said with soft-spoken lyricism, full of Shakespearean pathos.

O’Brien was married three times. He is survived by his third wife, Jenny Jones, also a theatre designer. He is also survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth and Catherine.

Timothy O’Brien, stage designer, was born on 8 March 8 1929. He died of prostate cancer on 14 October 2022, aged 93. 

Courtesy of The Times.