Christopher Oram’s set for the RSC’s two-part epic Wolf Hall is stark and abstract — a counterpoint to his sumptuous costumes, some of which are re-created from pictures of the actual clothes worn by the real-life characters.
“The set is stripped to the bare minimum because it was necessary to keep everything fluid,” says Oram, who notes that the story unfolds in more than 60 scenes with locations that range from forests, highways, and a river to palaces, cathedrals, and a lowly ale house. “It was always about the feeling and about the scale,” he explains. “The whole set is topped off by this big metal framework. If you light through it, you cast shadows of bars all over the floor — so we use that as the Tower of London — and if you light it from underneath, it suddenly becomes a vaulted cathedral.” With the neutral setting, it’s the costumes, lights, sound, and, of course, the versatile company of actors that help conjure for us the tumultuous world of King Henry VIII’s court.
Unseen by the audience, there is also a private token to remind the creators that 16th century England was once a very real and everyday world: Oram has inscribed in the floor of the set the paw print of a little dog.
The imprint is the designer’s homage to a real-life experience described by Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel. During her visit to Sutton House, the home built for Cromwell’s protégé Rafe Sadler, located in the now-trendy neighborhood of Hackney in London’s East End, Mantel came upon Tudor-period bricks that were probably made on the premises more than four centuries ago. They were, she noted in an article for a London newspaper, “real traces of the past, like the building’s flesh and blood.” What particularly caught her eye was a brick with the imprint of a dog that had obviously run across when the brick was still wet. “I began to sense the spring of 1535, when Thomas More was still alive and the pearls were still warm on the neck of Anne Boleyn,” she wrote. “It was then that the shock of the past reached out and jabbed me in the ribs.”