John Bury ~ Stage and Lighting Designer

The original 1963 production of Oh What a Lovely War at Theatre Workshop, Stratford East, with designs by John Bury.

Date: 1963
Photographer: Unknown. ©Theatre Workshop.

Afore Night Come by David Rudkin presented at the New Arts Theatre Club, London. Designs by: John Bury.

Date: 1962
Photographer: Unknown


The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Harold Pinter's 'Landscape' at the Aldwych Theatre, with Peggy Ashcroft and David Waller.  Directed by Peter Hall with set design and lighting by John Bury.

Date: 1969
Photographer: Unknown. ©Royal Shakespeare Company.

. . . masterly settings which John Bury has designed .  .  .  'Landscape' is naturalistic; it situates its two characters - a housekeeper no longer young, and her robust and extrovert ex-cellarman husband - precisely in a particular place: the kitchen of a great house. .  .  .  .  whilst Landscape is about a particular marriage, a marriage that, because of an unsuspected incident, is an exception to the condemnation implacably embodied, though never stated in any words .  .  .

From the review in The Sunday Times, 6th July 69

AmadeusThe Narional Theatre's Broadway production of Schaffer's 'Amadeus' with Ian McKellen and Tim Curry.  Directed by Peter Hall with set design, costume design and lighting by John Bury.

Date: 1980
Photographer: Unknown. ©National Thatres Company, London.

Here Salieri and his mistress accompany Mozart to the first performance of 'The Magic Flute'. This scene was added by Peter Shaffer during the Washington (pre-Broadway) run

'John Bury's set design and lighting were a revelation. I'd worked on many West End musicals with their huge rigs and staging, and here Bury's simplicity stunned me. It was minimal without being in the least bit austere. It was pure elegance. Except... except maybe for that huge chandelier  .  .  .'


John Bury 1925 -2000

Set designer whose energy brought flamboyance and originality to the theatre.

John Bury, the Glyndebourne and Royal Shakespeare Company stage designer, who has died aged 75, was usually in the grip of a great enthusiasm. A groundbreaker, he ploughed right through the lawns of English theatrical taste and received opinion about how sets should be.

He had a good start in life. His father worked as a physicist with Nils Bohr, and his mother was a botanist; both parents expected John to try his hand at things like gardening, sketching out of doors and learning how things work.

Educated at the Cathedral school, Hereford, and University College, London, Bury came to his work with plenty of general knowledge, but a touch of the primitive. He had no opportunity to study in his chosen field, or work as apprentice to an established designer, as is normal nowadays.

Pending demobilisation from the Fleet Air Arm, in which he served from 1942-46, he simply presented himself at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, in Stratford, East London - and, being no actor, evolved from driving the van that carried the lights, to hanging the lights themselves, focusing them on the action, and providing the odd door or wall as required.

Littlewood's demands and Bury's aptitude led to good sets, like those for A Taste Of Honey, The Quare Fellow, Fings Ain't What They Used To Be! and Oh What A Lovely War. He transferred to the West End, then a place of formalities, coming on stage with cast-iron radiators dismaying in their reality, more interested in the kind of paint to be used on a door than in its colour.

Bury travelled abroad with Theatre Workshop, picking up a wider theatrical experience than was then to be found in Britain; and he was politically aware too, if a bit of a Stalinist, who thought leftwing ideals could do with a few rules to make them effective in action. He left the Theatre Workshop in 1963 to join the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Peter Hall understood what this attitude could bring to various Shakespeare productions he was planning, with the theme of power in society; John's sets and costumes for The Wars Of The Roses, Stratford's great cycle of history plays for the Shakespeare quatercentenary in 1964, had an unprecedented force. His periaktoi were on a heroic scale. These triple-faced structures, based on classical Greek theatre, which, when revolved simultaneously, transformed the scene and its ethos, were dressed in metal-like siege engines and other weapons. Their unprecedented weight made for unrest back stage.

His designs for David Warner's Hamlet and Paul Scofield's Government Inspector showed increasing sophistication. His Hamlet was a black formica world of elegant menace; his Government Inspector was a brilliant gaggle of characters drawn from diverse sources - Daumier crossed with Beatrix Potter.

Among Bury's very best work, in my opinion, were Pinter's double-bill, Landscape and Silence, at the Aldwych. For Landscape, he created an ocean of emotional distance with a divided rostrum. Silence had a labyrinth of forlorn memory, in which light bounced off a rippled silver floor, throwing shadows and shimmering clouds on to a plain canvas ceiling.

These were days of ascendency for Bury, and he went to Glyndebourne, initially in the face of a lingering, polite anxiety about his 'lack of taste'. But he refashioned the world of baroque opera as a full-bodied place. In 1970, Cavalli's Calisto scuttled away in a bearskin to her place in the stars as Ursa Minor. A year later, the gods of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria were suspended from the flies, riding the sky on bluntly mechanical rails. The Hall staging, though not the least Pythonesque, was nicknamed Monteverdi's Flying Circus.

A few years earlier, Bury had made as bold a beginning at Covent Garden, with Moses and Aaron. The opera's postbag was stuffed with anguished letters about the exploited women in the dance before the golden calf, and the nervous animals on a slope made slippery with 'the blood of sacrifice'. In 1973, he became Peter Hall's head of design, and associate director at the National Theatre, then preparing to leave the Old Vic for its new South Bank home.

There, the standard of work was not always sustained. There was so much of it, and the demands of Bury's collaborators were diluted by their need to woo public opinion. But for every Yonadab, there was an Amadeus, and Shaffer's Mozart play won John Tony awards on Broadway for lighting, as well as for design.

More than most, he was an international figure. He was chairman of the Society of British Theatre Designers, won prizes at Quadriennales of Design in Prague, and was chairman of the scenographic commission of the International Organisation of Designers and Theatre Architects. He was an energetic boss of proceedings, who loved art, committee rulebooks, and being in charge. In truth, he always knew what had to be done, with his tap root to the heart of his culture, a conservative as well as an innovative artist. He had a sense of history and context, an eye for ingredients.

A big man, Bury might seem clumsy, and his appetites were strong to the point of greediness. A surprising delicacy of touch was nourished by his second wife Elizabeth, who contributed much to his work. He should be remembered for his courage in the face of much illness, for his services to his profession and for walking around his garden, a glass in hand, full of pleasure at the sights that had been his heritage and treasure all his life.

Timothy O'Brien
The Guardian 15 November 2000.

Henry VI
John Bury OBE, design for Peter Hall's 1963 Royal Shakespeare Company production of of Henry Sixth part 1.
Photographer: Unknown. ©John Bury and RSC

Henry VI,Part 1,

The 1963, Royal Shakespeare Company production featured Janet Suzman as Joan la Pucelle. The production was directed by Peter Hall with designs by John Bury.

'From the visual standpoint, the productions are blatantly contemporary - John Bury's bolted steel scales continue to show history as a forge in which countries and ideals are beaten, shaped, grow hot and cold. The ritual element and spectacle are superbly arranged - in particular one thinks of the Lists of Coventry, the walls of Flint Castle, the Coronation of Henry V and the final scene of Edward IV.'

[John Gardner, Herald 23.10.64]

'The blocking here shows how an empty stage can be filled by figures and portable weapons.'


Design by,John Bury for Peter Hall's 1966 production of 'Hamlet' at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Date: 1966
Photographer: ©Tom Holt.

Design by,John Bury for Peter Hall's 1966 production of 'Hamlet' at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Date: 1966
Photographer: ©Tom Holt.

This set shows how cramped modern set design can be compared to the Elizabethan open stage, with additional gallery level space missing from this design despite the clumsy high doors.

No Man's Land
John Bury's 1975 design for Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' at the Old Vic, London. Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Michael Feast and Terence Rigby.

Date: 1975
Photographer: Unknown. ©The National Theatre.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera, production of Beethoven's 'Fidelio', directed by Peter Hall with designs by John Bury.

Date: 1979
Photographer: Unknown. ©Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera, production of Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', directed by Peter Hall with setting and costumes by John Bury and Liz Bury.

Date: 1981
Photographer: Unknown. ©Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

John Bury, Set Designer Who Changed the Look of British Theater, Dies at 75

John Bury, the innovative production designer whose bold, stylized sets provided a dramatic alternative to the box sets and realistically painted scenes of traditional British theater, died on Sunday in Gloucestershire, England. He was 75. The cause was pneumonia brought on by heart disease, his family said.

Mr. Bury's career began in the 1950's and included impressive work into the 1990's with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and the Glyndebourne opera festival, among many others. He designed memorable sets, paired with equally memorable lighting, that evoked the titanic power struggles and intimate human dramas of Shakespeare, the missed connections and unspoken menace of Pinter and the decadence and sensuality of the opera Salome. Describing Mr. Bury's design for Brendan Behan's prison drama The Quare Fellow, the critic Kenneth Tynan said it seemed 'exactly to capture the aridity of confinement.'

Known for his architectural structures and his preference for authentic materials -- wood, brick, metal, glass -- in his sets, Mr. Bury also believed, in many cases, in using a minimum of scenery to provide a maximum of acting space. His ideas did not always make things easy for the actors. In 1957, his design for Henry Chapman's play You Won't Always Be on Top stipulated that an actual brick wall be constructed across the stage during each performance, a requirement that ensured, at least, that the actors became expert bricklayers by the end of the play's run.

John Bury was born in Aberystwyth, Wales, in 1925. Educated at the Cathedral School in Hereford and University College London, he enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in 1942, serving until 1946.

Back in civilian life, he went to work at Joan Littlewood's proletarian-leaning Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, London, advancing up the ranks from driving vans to mixing paints to choosing fabrics to hanging and then operating the lights, and then to constructing sets. He searched through junkyards for the natural objects -- toilets, cement mixers, ironing boards -- essential to the sets of the working-class dramas that so altered the landscape of British theater in the 1950's.

By 1958, he was the chief designer at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, responsible for the sets for, among other shows, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Ms. Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War.

In 1963, Mr. Bury left the Theatre Workshop and embarked on a long and fruitful partnership with Peter Hall, for whom he first worked at the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was associate designer and then head of design. He gained immediate attention with his first big project there: the designs for Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses cycle, under Mr. Hall's direction.

These were huge black triple-sided structures, inspired by classical Greek theatre, that rotated simultaneously for changes of scene. And they were made almost entirely of metal, even the leaves on the trees. The props and furniture were iron; the walls and floor were steel.

His sets for the 1965 production of Hamlet -- shiny and black, full of marble and tapestries -- were judged triumphal. One critic described them as 'a superb inferno'; another said Mr. Bury had created a 'wax museum of elderly lasciviousness.'

Mr. Hall and Mr. Bury worked together at the Royal Shakespeare Company throughout the 1960's. When Mr. Hall, now Sir Peter, became director of the National Theater in 1973, he took Mr. Bury with him.

Among the modern plays they produced together were many by Harold Pinter, including The Collection, The Homecoming, Landscape, Silence and Betrayal. For The Homecoming, Mr. Bury's grim, shadowy north London interior proved so popular with Mr. Pinter that when he revived the play in 1991, the playwright called Mr. Bury back to recreate the same bleakness.

In their extensive partnership, Mr. Bury and Mr. Hall found their biggest commercial and popular success with Amadeus, which opened at the National and transferred to Broadway. Mr. Bury's opulent setting was fluid, beautiful and flexible, allowing for many changes of scene. On Broadway, the play brought him two Tony Awards, for best lighting and best set design, in 1981.

Mr. Bury left the National Theatre in 1985, turning most of his attention to opera, a medium in which he had already worked as a freelance designer in the late 1960's and early 70's. He designed two or three operas a year in Europe and the United States until his health began to fail in the mid-1990's.

His productions -- many done in partnership with his wife, Elizabeth -- included Salome, for the Royal Opera House in 1988, for the Washington Opera in 1990 and for the San Francisco Opera in 1993; Carmen, for Glyndebourne in 1987; and Orfeo and A Midsummer Night's Dream for Glyndebourne in 1989. In New York, he designed the sets for a number of plays, including Ibsens's Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, both starring Claire Bloom.

Mr. Bury was also active in professional groups, serving as the chairman of the Society of British Theatre Designers from 1975 to 1985. He did considerable work as a consultant to architects on the design of theatre buildings and opera houses, including the first opera house in Tokyo and the refurbished Glyndebourne Festival Opera House.

Although he slowed down markedly in his final years, Mr. Bury never stopped working altogether. At the time of his death, he was working on the forthcoming revival of his and Sir Peter's Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne.

Sarah Lyall, New York Times, November 17, 2000

Image from the 1992 Royal Opera House production of Richard Strauss's 'Salome' with designs by John Bury..

Date: 1992
Photographer: Unknown. ©The Royal Opera House

Salome LA
Image from the 1998 Los Angeles Opera production of Richard Strauss's 'Salome' directed by Sir Peter Hall and designs by John Bury.

Date: 1998
Photographer: Unknown. ©Los Angele Opera


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I love Salome, and while I admit it took some time for me to appreciate his music, I love Strauss. While I personally prefer the 1975 film with Stratas, Weikl, Varnay and Beier with Bohm conducting and the 1990 performance with Malfitano and Estes, this Salome is marvellous.

My only real complaint really is the muddied sound quality, which makes the singing sound a little too soft at times. That said, the picture quality apart from the odd shoddy moment is good, and the camera angles are interesting and don't elude the performers in any way.

In terms of costume and set design, this is not as sumptuous as the 1975 film but it with nods to Klimt and Beardsley has a very haunting quality to it without making it too humourless with the use of the creepy-looking moon and the dungeon-like set.

On a musical front, this Salome works very well. The conducting is nuanced and assured, and the orchestra play powerfully with moments of beauty too. Dance of the Seven Veils is wonderfully erotic and twisted. Maybe the louder, more forceful moments could've done with more attack, but they were dramatic and compelling enough, never too tame or too manic. The waltz-like sections fare better stylistically.

The singing is also great. Michael Devlin with pale blue make-up and waist-length hair is startling in image, rich in voice and commanding in stage presence. I have remarked more than once that Herodias is almost on Klytemnestra's(Elektra) level on the odious scale and Gillian Knight is appropriately icy.

Kenneth Riegel is much better here than he was in the 1997 performance, where my feelings on his performance were mixed. Here his tenor voice is much less strained and while I still consider him lyric tenor than dramatic tenor he handles the vocal and dramatic side of the role of Herod very well.

It is Maria Ewing however that makes the production as well worth watching as it is. I have always liked Ewing, particularly as Carmen and Cherubino. Salome is a very demanding role and a completely different kettle of fish than these two roles and possibly anything else Ewing has done. This said, she is simply stellar, dramatically she starts off with a girlish quality which was among the most believable of any other Salome but then she is frightening especially in the last half-hour or so, when she is awaiting Jochanaan's severed head and when she cavorts it. Her singing is both powerful and ethereal with no signs of harshness.

All in all, marvellous.

Bethany Cox reviews the 1992 TV version of Salome, October 2011 (Designs by John Bury.)

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