The National Theatre’s production of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England was performed in the Dorfman Theatre in Spring 2020 before the venue closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The one-man show was an intense study of grief and identity in Britain, performed in-the-round on a cross-shaped stage by Rafe Spall in an explosively energetic performance. Dyer’s direction, and Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s stark set demanded equally dramatic lighting from the outset, which was provided by dance and theatre lighting designer, and NT regular, Jackie Shemesh.

Shemesh chose 4 Ayrton Diablo 300W LED profile fixtures as central features of his design, which he mainly deployed as followspots to track Spall’s every move, and to divide the catwalk stage into separate spaces and acting areas.

The Diablo fixtures were rigged above the four inner corners of the cross stage, dropped 1m lower than the rest of the rig and side-mounted. This allowed clear sightlines to every angle of the stage, to ensure Spall could be covered at all times, in any stage position. “I felt very strongly that the Diablos should be lower than the height of the Dorfman as I wanted them to be visible to the audience as part of the overall design concept,” says Shemesh. “We felt that followspotting Rafe on the catwalk was the right idea to emphasis the impression of the actor under relentless scrutiny, so there was no reason not to see the fixtures and celebrate them. As an added bonus, Diablo’s small form factor proved a definite advantage: they just looked right and their compact size did not obscure the audience sightlines.”

The Dorfman Theatre is the smallest of the National Theatre’s three spaces with a 450-seat capacity, and a balcony on a level with the lighting rig. “The Diablos were rigged only 2m – 2.5m from audience yet we had no complaints about noise,” says Shemesh. “That was a relief and such a benefit! I’ve had noise issues with moving lights before – either from the audience or the sound team – but it was just not an issue with Diablo.”

Shemesh employed the Diablo fixtures as wash lights, with no added colour, colour correction or gobos, preferring instead to make subtle adjustments to the colour temperature. “I call Kelvin, not colour, when we are programming,” he explains. “The interesting aspect of using Diablo in theatre as a followspot was how it enabled me to highlight every nuance of the many facial expressions of this incredibly talented actor. Diablo was the perfect wash light, allowing the audience to see his face at all times. It is a lot to ask of an actor to hold the stage with no support, so we filled in as best we could to make it work, with the Diablos, in effect, becoming the companions of the actor on stage.”

The four Diablo profiles were controlled by zactrack – its first use at the National Theatre with the lighting fixtures and the tracking system both recommended and supplied by Ambersphere Solutions, the UK’s exclusive distributor for Ayrton and zactrack.

“Rafe’s energy on stage required a very good system that could track him at speed and a very good light that was capable of keeping up with him,” explains Shemesh. “Ambersphere recommended Diablo clearly from the outset but, as I hadn’t used it before, I was keen to explore other options too. However, our comprehensive try outs soon proved to me that Diablo reacted best with zactrack on every parameter – it was precise, accurate, and the fastest light to respond.”

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the fight scene where Spall’s character shadow-boxed around the stage followed by the zactrack controlled Diablo units which strobed on him from four sides, giving rise to rapid, dramatic sculptural changes in the stage visuals. “Diablo has the speed and finesse to handle all these demands.”

Jack Champion, lighting supervisor for the Dorfman, agrees: “Diablo kept up incredibly well with Rafe’s jagged and staccato movements, handling the changes in speed, direction and stage levels with ease. It has a very good response time and no lag, and worked equally as well with the Robert Juliat SpotMe system we have in the Olivier, which made Diablo the ideal investment for both venues.”

Ambersphere’s Philip Norfolk comments: “After being asked to provide automated tracking for a new show at the National, it was clear that the design requirements and equipment usage would be critical to the shows overall success. Jackie and the whole team at the National Theatre really embraced a new system for controlling movement of lights AND new fixtures themselves. It was a real leap of faith by them all. I am delighted it was such a success and looked fabulous for the audiences that got the chance to see it.”

“I was particularly impressed with Diablo’s brightness in relation to its size and weight,” confirms Champion. “It’s light enough for a one-man rig and can be rigged at any angle which makes it extremely flexible. I can see potential for even greater applications in a venue like the Dorfman with low ceiling heights: it introduces the possibility of over-rigging Diablo on the circle or the front rail of the balcony to provide a low cross-light moving light option, with a good pan, without interfering with sight lines.”

“Diablo worked very well for everything I wanted them to do as key light for the actor,” concludes Shemesh. “I had a generous rig of other fixtures which worked well too of course. But Diablo held its own, living evenly with the other fixtures in the rig.”

Text: Julie Harper
Photos: © Helen Murray

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