“Ralph Koltai is one of the best stage designers in the world. His CV reads like a history of the developments of the past forty years of theatre in this country.” Trevor Nunn’s description of Koltai’s career is more than apt. Generations of theatre designers have to thank Koltai for redefining the role of the designer and elevating the designer’s authority to that of the director.
Prior to Koltai, theatre design was very little innovative. Traditional scenery, in the form of wood and canvas flats, was the standard use in productions. Ralph Koltai introduced new materials to the theatre, including cement, various forms of plastics and found objects such as rusty metal, old machinery, and concrete blocks. In addition to using industrial materials, Koltai has also become well known for his abstract and expressionistic sets, his bold use of colour and contrasting, reflective surfaces. Unlike many of his predecessors, who illustrated and decorated the play, Koltai aims to find a metaphor which expresses the meaning of the play: “What I wanted to do was to find a single image which would express what the author was saying, rather than just provide illustrations. I wanted to show the idea – the concept.” Koltai’s artistic work is highly prolific: he created designs for over one hundred fifty productions of theatre, ballet and opera.
While Koltai’s career reads like a history of twentieth century theatre, his personal life, in particular his younger years, was shaped by major events of twentieth century history. Born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1924, he emigrated to Britain in 1939 as part of a Kindertransport. Ralph was only fourteen when he had to say goodbye to his parents. “You’ll be safer in England”, his father told him as he put him on a train. In 1946, Koltai went to Nuremberg to help set up a German war library for the British prosecuting team.
Koltai’s set and costume designs for the 1978 production of The Tempest show all the distinctive features of Koltai’s style. Koltai created a shiny black moon landscape dominated by a frozen wave relieved by splashes of colour. Ariel, as one reviewer put it, “looked like a man from outer space”. Journalists commented on the surreal and highly stylised set which appeared as mysterious as a painting by Dali. In contrast to the dark floor, the costumes and gauzes were of bold vibrant colours and the blackness of the set provided an ideal backing for displaying the colourful Caroline robes of the shipwrecked courtiers.