One of the most innovative set and costume designers of the late 20th century, Sally Jacobs, who has died aged 87, transformed our expectations of the stage with her bold and iconoclastic designs.
Nowhere was this more true than in her set design for Peter Brook’s hugely successful 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the traditional trappings of the play, a forest and gossamer-winged fairies, were replaced with a stark white box. Titania’s bough was a huge, blood-red feather, Oberon and Puck sat on trapezes and metal coils represented trees. Bottom wore a string vest, oversize boots and a ping-pong ball nose. The revolutionary concept changed our idea of what theatre can do, even if at the time it proved controversial – not least because the play opened in the rather conservative town where the Bard of Avon was born.
One critic writing in The Financial Times was particularly unsmitten. “The stage is white-walled and empty. An iron gallery runs round the top where those members of the cast not immediately taking part stand to look down on the play in the manner of overseers supervising a factory floor. Two trapezes hang on black cords and a vast red plume is splashed across the back wall. The actors spill on the stage, a garish mixture dressed in King’s Road-type shirt and trousers, while silk coats and dresses of hard primary colours.”
The then RSC finance director, Bill Wilkinson, was also shocked when he saw the set for the first time. “It seemed the weirdest thing imaginable. I thought: where are the fairies? Where is the shady glade?” Not with some understatement, he remembers Jacobs as “brimming with ideas, bold in presenting them and I suspect not to be easily dissuaded from her intentions.” It’s a character assessment echoed by her friend and collaborator theatre director Anna Furse, who also describes her as: “a woman of phenomenal intellect and integrity who was also humble.”
Humble could also be used to describe the designer’s beginnings. Like many other poor Jewish East End stars of her generation, such as Steven Berkoff and Arnold Wesker, she was born in the Jewish Maternity Hospital in 1932. Known as Mother’s Levy’s, the pioneering institution was the first in the UK to provide maternity nurses and home helps for new mothers.
Her parents were Bernard and Esther Rich, a furrier and milliner. Money was tight in the Whitechapel family home and after she left Dalston County secondary school at the age of 14 Jacobs learned shorthand and typing so she could contribute to the household income. She got a job as a secretary at a film agency in Soho where she continued to work after she’d enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art. While there, she met the Jewish writer Alexander Jacobs who paid her parents the £3 weekly salary so she could focus on her studies.
She married Alexander when she was only 21, and her RSC career began soon after. Her design debut for the company was The Empire Builders TV series, her second, Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, in 1962. The legendary theatre director Peter Brook, then an associate director with the company, was impressed and invited her to work with him in his Theatre of Cruelty season. Their first collaboration was on Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade in which the inmates of a Parisian mental asylum enact a murder in its bathhouse. Jacobs’ fully-lit stage featured spraying water jets, pipes, a bench and small pools of water sunk in the floor which were covered with duckboards. There were no other props, no curtain and no black-out for the audience. Her design was declared a design triumph.
Seven years later she would work with Brook on A Midsummer Night’s Dream but in between her commissions, included designing costumes for Frederic Raphael’s film Nothing but the Best, and John Boorman’s Catch Us if You Can, on which Alexander was assistant producer. One day the star of the film, Dave Clark, said something insulting to Jacobs about the clothes she wanted him to wear, and Alexander flew into a rage. “It was a terrifying sight. He frothed at the mouth. He smashed his fist into Dave’s face,” said Boorman.
But loyal as he was, the couple grew apart. In the years following their move to America for Alexander’s work, they separated. He died in 1979.
Jacobs returned to London in the early 80s and over the next decades designed Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus for the Paris Opera, Puccini’s Turandot, Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Royal Opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten for the English National Opera. Her theatre designs included the Lewis Grassic Gibbon trilogy, A Scots Quair, and Timberlake Wurtenbaker’s Three Birds Alighting on a Field, directed by Max Stafford Clark.
Like many great practitioners she was passionate about teaching her craft and over the years taught at the Central School of Art and Design, Slade School of Fine Art and Goldsmiths University, where she was a fellow. In America she did stints at California Institute of the Arts, California University, New York University and Rutgers University. Her archive is held at the Harvard Theatre Collection at Harvard University.
“She left an amazing trail of theatrical design – and big ideas about what theatre can do, and how,” says Furse, who worked with her on four new plays for Paines Plough theatre company. Jacobs is survived by her son, Toby.
Sally Jacobs: born November 5, 1932.
Died August 16, 2020