The Society of British Theatre Designers

Staging Places: UK Design for Performance 2015-2019 (Image: Performing Architects)

Elroy Ashmore


  • Production: Faust
  • Company: Clonter Opera
  • Venue: Britten Theatre
  • Year: 2014
  • Author: Gounod
  • Directed by: Michael McCaffery
  • Composer : Gounod
  • Lighting Design by: David Sadler
  • Projection Design by: Elroy Ashmore
  • Costume Design by: Elroy Ashmore
  • Set designed by: Elroy Ashmore
  • Photography by: David Sadler
  • Design © Elroy Ashmore
Faust was probably the most popular opera to be performed at the turn of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century. It was Grand Opera with all the trimmings including a full Ballet. My approach to designing Faust was to treat it like an old masterwork that needed to be dusted down and to see what lay under all those layers of varnish. We couldn’t produce those huge lavish sets and costumes that were all part and parcel of Grand 19th Century French Opera – indeed we wouldn’t want to. My first thoughts came from a set of stereoscopic cards called Diableries. They were a sensation in 19th Century France part of a general fascination with all things diabolical. These visionary dioramas shows life in a parallel universe, Enfer with the devil in many forms, sometimes diabolical but also as a character of fun in the various settings of carnivals, fairgrounds, music halls, dance halls etc. all of which were considered sinful by the French Catholic Society of the day. These ideas gave me the clue to designing Faust. Victor Hugo once wrote “God wrote the play but Satan is the stage manager”. Mephistopheles is a showman, a trickster, a magician, a theatrical illusionist also part jester and part clown but with the evil face behind the smile. He can change character every time we see him. We are in a world of make believe where gullible people are told to believe in something and they will do just that. A world of smoke and mirrors. Faust is an older middle aged man who wants to regain the lust of youth. He is led into this world of theatrical Illusion, fairgrounds and circuses, by Mephistopheles. He is told he has regained his youth and so believes it. However it’s all coloured lights and mirrors and when the lights are turned off there is nothing but shadows and the still mechanics of the illusions. I was also interested in the art of rejuvenation; all those aged Hollywood stars with their even white teeth, face lifts and dyed hair. There was a “rejuvenation doctor” in Vienna , Eugen Steinach (1861 – 1944) who conducted many interesting experiments in longevity and sexual prowess and treated amongst others W.B.Yeats who wrote “ not only my creativity was revived but also my sexual appetite”. Eugene Steinach’s institute was set in the grounds of the Preter, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park! This led me directly back to the set as a part circus space, part theatre, part hall of mirrors and part fairground. The theatricality of the Cirque Du Soleil also had a huge influence on the design. We mustn’t forget the religious side of this opera. The theatre and church, especially the Catholic Church are very close to each other. The cheap sentimentality of French Catholicism, it’s kitsch art and artefacts are another element to the design.