O'Brien, Timothy (Brian) 1929-
O'BRIEN, Timothy (Brian) 1929-
PERSONAL: Born March 8, 1929, in Shillong, Assam, India; son of Brian Palliser Tiegue (a soldier) and Elinor Laura (Mackenzie) O'Brien; married Jenny Jones (a designer), November 22, 1997. Education: Attended Wellington College, Crowthome, Berkshire, 1942-47; attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 1952; studied stage design under Donald Oenslager at Yale University, 1952-53. Hobbies and other interests: Sailing.
CAREER: Stage and exhibition designer. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC-TV), London, England, design assistant, 1954-55; Associated Rediffusion Television, London, designer, 1955-56; ABC Television, London, head of design, 1956-65; partnership in stage design with Tazeena Firth, 1961-79; Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, associate designer, 1966-88, honorary associate artist, 1988—; National Theatre, London, designer, 1974-77. Lecturer, Royal College of Art, London, 1966-67.
Stage work as scenic designer includes productions of The Bald Primadonna, London, 1956, The New Tenant, London, 1956, Hunter's Moon, London, 1958, Five Finger Exercise, London, 1958, The Daring Buds of May, London, 1959, Don't Shoot, We're English, London, 1960, Henry IV, Part I, London, 1961, Progress to the Park, London, 1961, The Bartered Bride, 1962, The Girl of the Golden West, 1962, Next Time I'll Sing to You, London, 1963, License to Murder, London, 1963, Luv, London, 1963, Poor Bitos, London, 1963, New York, NY, 1964, Hedda Gabler, London, 1964, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, London, 1964, A Scent of Flowers, London, 1964, Waiting for Godot, London, 1964, Traveling Light, London, 1965, A Scent of Flowers, Stuttgart, Germany, 1965, Tango, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1966, Days in the Trees, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1966, Joey Joey, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1966, Staircase, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1966, All's Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967, As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967, Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1968, Troilus and Cressida, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1968, The Latent Heterosexual, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1968, Pericles, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1969, Women Beware Women, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1969, Bartholomew Fair, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1969, The Knot Garden, Royal Opera, 1970, Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1970, The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1971, Enemies, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1971, (with Tazeena Firth) The Man of Mode, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1971, La Cenerentola, Oslo, Norway, 1972, Lower Depths, The Island of the Mighty, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1972, As You Like It, OC Shakespeare Company, 1972, Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1973, Love's Labour's Lost, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1973, Next of Kin, National Theater of Great Britain, London, 1974, The Bassarids, English National Opera, 1974, Summerfolk, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1974, Pericles, Comedie Française, Paris, 1974, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1975, The Marrying of Ann Leete, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1975, Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, London, 1975, John Gabriel Borkman, National Theater, 1975, The Bassarids, Frankfurt, 1975, Wozzeck, Adelaide Festival, 1976, The Zykovs, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1976, Troilus and Cressida, National Theater, 1976, The Force of Habit, National Theater, 1976, Falstaff, Berlin Opera, 1977, Tales from the Vienna Woods, National Theater, 1977, Bedroom Farce, National Theater, 1977, The Cunning Little Vixen, Goteborg, Sweden, 1978, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sydney Opera House, Australia, 1978, Evita, National Theater, 1978, then New York, NY, 1979, The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera, 1979, Peter Grimes, Goteborg, Sweden, 1979, Lulu, Royal Opera, London, 1981, La Ronde, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1982, A Doll's Life, New York, NY, 1982, Le Grand Macabre, English National Opera, London, 1982, Turandot, Vienna State Opera, 1983, Tannhauser, Royal Opera, London, 1984, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, English National Opera, 1984, Tramway Road, Lyric Theatre-Hammersmith, London, 1984, Samson, Royal Opera, 1985, Sicilian Vespers, Grande Theatre, Geneva, 1985, Old Times, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 1985, Lucia di Lammermoor, Cologne Opera, 1985, The Threepenny Opera, National Theatre, 1986, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Netherlands Opera, 1986, The American Clock, National Theatre, 1986, Otello, Royal Opera, 1987, revived 1990, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Royal Opera, 1987, Three Sisters, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1988, Cymbeline, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989, Exclusive, Strand Theatre, London, 1989, King, Piccadilly Theatre, London, 1990, Love's Labour's Lost, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1990, Twelfth Night, Playhouse, 1991, Tartuffe, Playhouse, 1991, War and Peace, Kirov, Leningrad, 1991, Beauty and the Beast, City of Birmingham Touring Opera, 1991, Columbus and the Discovery of Japan, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1992, Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera, 1993, Misha's Party, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1993, On Approval, Playhouse, 1994, The Clandestine Marriage, Queen's Theatre, London, 1994, The Merry Wives of Windsor, National Theatre, 1995, The Master Builder, Royal Haymarket, London, 1995, Outis, La Scala, Milan, 1996, A Christmas Carol, Theatr Clwyd, 1997, Twelfth Night, 1999, Macbeth, Chichester Festival, 2000, Macbeth, Theatre Clwyd, 2002, Bedroom Farce, San Carlos, Lisbon, 2000, and Werther. Film work as scenic designer includes Night Must Fall, 1964. Television work as scenic designer includes The Flying Dutchman, 1958. Exhibitions include British Theatre Design '83-87, Riverside Studios, London, 1988. Member of international jury, Prague Quadriennale, 1999. Military service: British Army Intelligence Corps, Austria, sergeant, 1948-49.
MEMBER: Society of British Theatre Designers (cofounder, 1971; chairperson, 1984-91).
AWARDS, HONORS: Prague Quadriennale Gold Medal Award for best set design, 1975; Golden Triga for best national exhibit, 1991; elected Royal Designer for Industry, 1991; elected Master of Faculty, 1999-2001.
(With David Fingleton) British Theatre Design '83-87, [London, England], 1988.
Contributor to British Theatre Design, the Modern Age, edited by John Goodwin, 1989.
SIDELIGHTS: Commenting in Contemporary Designers, British stage and exhibition designer Timothy O'Brien described his work as the creation of "a world, its people and their circumstances, in the service of a production and its ideas." Design must be "relevant" and easy to understand in order "to persuade the freshly arrived audience to clear their minds." It should help "to remove stale associations," but the work of the designer fails "if fashion obscures content."
Relating his ideas to his work on the 1975 production of John Gabriel Borkman, staged by Great Britain's National Theater, O'Brien laid the scene thus in Contemporary Designers: "Things connect. Borkman stands, self-imprisoned in his upstairs room. A hidden door in a faded tapestry of a nymph and her shepherd opens to admit the woman he loved and then forsook when he married her sister for worldly advantage. The audience shivers afresh at the consequences."
Born the son of British parents in India in 1929, O'Brien spent two years just after World War II as an army sergeant stationed in Austria. He began to work as a scenic designer for the London stage in 1956, with the production of The Bald Primadonna. There followed numerous productions that included works of Shakespeare ranging from a 1961 staging of Henry IV, Part I, 1967's All's Well That Ends Well, and the following year's The Merry Wives of Windsor to 1970's Measure for Measure and 1971's The Merchant of Venice. O'Brien also started to design for more modern classics, such as Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, both in 1964, as well as Ibsen's The Master Builder in 1995. He also participated in the production of musical works that included a 1984 production of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera in 1986, and a 1993 production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. To U.S. audiences perhaps the most notable of O'Brien's designs were those he did for the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita in 1978.
Writing in the Hartford Courant, Malcolm Johnson suggested that O'Brien's "stage-spanning bridge" designed for Evita—the place from which the title character addressed the Argentine throngs—has become a defining structure in Lloyd Webber's more recent work. "Evita and its breathtaking look, both harshly mechanistic and redolent of revolutionary Latin murals," wrote Johnson, "inaugurated a new era for Lloyd Webber, and for musical theater. Thereafter, even if Lloyd Webber originally conceived of a new work as intimate, as in the case of both Cats and Starlight Express, the urge toward spectacle proved irresistible."
Though it may be true, as Shakespeare wrote, that "the play's the thing," O'Brien's work has attracted plenty of notice by theatre reviewers. L. Potter, writing in the Times Literary Supplement regarding a production of Love's Labour's Lost staged at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, called O'Brien's sets "exceptionally beautiful." Benedict Nightingale of the London Times reviewed the Royal Shakespeare Company's presentation of the same play in London a year later, a production whose cast included an actor then little known to U.S. audiences, Ralph Fiennes. Having returned to "its main London home," Nightingale suggested, "as if to apologise for being so long away," it appeared that the company, and specifically O'Brien, had given "its stage a disarmingly luxuriant look. Timothy O'Brien might have collaborated with Monet and Renoir in creating the lush foliage of reds, yellows, purples, and greens that towers above Shakespeare's lords as they loll on cushions enjoying their dejeuner sur l'herbe [a reference to Lunch on the Grass, a famous Monet painting] in the dappled light."
O'Brien once told CA: "When Graham Vick, the director, and I went to visit Luciano Berio about his new opera Outis, of which the premiere was imminent but the music incomplete, I asked him what it was, to which he replied: 'A musical action in five cycles. A network of expectations. No outcome, however. No premise either.' So I set happily to work in a black space designing scenography containing a sixty-foot revolving stage, secret walls springing up from the floor, a sale of childhood myths by an auctioneer who grew to twenty-five feet and was pricked to death, a Golden Calf made of sixty-eight television sets, a brothel of glass barriers, a dream-laden supermarket, a forest, a child's Trojan horse, a cruise liner, an airport lounge and a concert platform which saw the death of music. Outis—the Greek word for nobody—is the name Odysseus gives himself in the cave of Polyphemus. When Polyphemus cries out that 'Nobody' has blinded him, the other Cyclops do not come to his aid and Outis escapes. Outis's journey does not end in this opera. Berio confronts his own life at the end of the twentieth century, during which he feels conviction has died."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Designers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Hartford Courant, August 20, 1995, p. G1.
Theatre Crafts International, February, 1996, p. 16.
Times (London, England), March 28, 1991.
Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1990, p. 975; November 1, 1991, p. 18; July 31, 1992, p. 18.