Fri 20 May 2022

Interview with Max Johns – Designer of The Climbers

Max Johns trained in theatre design at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and was the recipient of a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship in 2015. We are really excited to see what he will bring to the stage here at Theatre by the Lake for The Climbers 17 June - 16 July, here's a sneak peek...

The question we think everyone will have in mind for the designer of The Climbers is how on earth do you put Everest on stage?
I always think about the relationship between people and space as a starting point when designing for the stage and there are few relationships more extreme than that between a human and the highest mountain on Earth. I was fascinated by the disorientation many climbers experience at high altitudes and the sense of being overwhelmed by snow blindness, but also the sense of serenity and awe that climbers experience when summitting such huge peaks. Portraying Everest naturalistically is an impossible task so I was more interested in how it feels to be in that extreme environment and how we could capture that feeling visually.

How have you approached the costume design?
There are many reasons for our decision not to dress the characters in the exact clothing worn by mountaineers climbing Everest – not least the fact that our actors would have had to contend with the unbearable heat of wearing full down suits and snow boots on stage! However it felt important to still be truthful so we’ve researched the various layers of specialist clothing and equipment required to protect climbers exposed to the extreme altitudes and terrains they encounter on their ascent. From a storytelling perspective I was very keen to honour the fluidity with which the characters move between different times and locations, and the way in which we experience the scenes on the mountain through the lens of Yasmin’s memory, so it felt right to find a balance in the costume that would enable that fluidity.

Has this show required more research than most? Can you tell us about your process?
Due to the pandemic, Guy (the director) and I have had over two years to research high altitude climbing and the mythology surrounding Everest – much longer than we’d normally have in the run up to a production. I’ve never climbed anything higher than Scafell Pike so I was curious about what drives people to pursue the world’s most challenging peaks. We’ve watched countless climbing films and researched each step of the journey from arriving in Nepal to Base Camp to the summit. I was struck by how the relatively recent commercialisation of climbing Everest has changed it – in particular the relationship between western climbers and the Sherpa who facilitate their climbs – as well as the deep spiritual connection people have had with the mountain that goes back hundreds of years. Like many people I was shocked to learn about the summit queues that are now commonplace, the litter problems on the mountain, and the fact that the colourfully-clothed bodies of climbers who have died still line the so called “rainbow valley” path through Everest’s death zone.

What are the main challenges you’ve faced, technical or otherwise?
The play moves seamlessly between the snow covered summit of Everest at 29,000 ft and domestic settings back in the UK, which is a challenging and exciting provocation for the design. The play presents a story in fragments that the audience slowly piece together as our central character Yasmin recalls her and her partner Charlie’s fateful bid for the summit. I see the space as a reflection of Yasmin’s psyche – the various locations are like memories that appear and fade away as she replays the events that led up to their adventure. There are of course some rope climbing moments in the show, and these have been really exciting to conceptualise – we’re exploiting the existing architecture of the theatre to make these possible.

Are there any surprises for audiences do you think?
Yes but it would spoil them to talk about them here 🙂