Laureation address: Bunny Christie
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Ms Zinnie Harris
School of English
Monday 1 December 2014
Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Ms Bunny Christie for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.
Bunny Christie is a theatre designer of huge national importance. She has designed sets and costumes for the most influential productions in the recent past, her work being seen on all the major stages in this country and often on Broadway. She has worked most extensively at the National Theatre of Great Britain, designing shows in all three spaces, and recently winning her third Olivier Award for her inventive design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Bunny was born and brought up here in St Andrews, attending Madras School as a teenager. At that time Madras performed their school productions at the Byre, so Bunny’s early work, as an assistant to various teachers, was here in this town. She was also taken on school trips to Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre, where she encountered the work of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald. She describes the experience as one of awakening, likening the Citizens’ to a ‘palace filled with a gorgeous, sexy, visual feast.’ The theatre that she encountered, essentially more European in feel than other Scottish contemporary work, became invaluable to her as a marker of what great theatre can and should be.
After school Bunny moved to London to go to art school and she graduated with a first class honours degree from Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design. She describes art school as being the place where she learnt to look at the world properly, to observe and not to simply think, ‘Oh I know what that is, and therefore I know its shape,’ but rather to encounter objects and landscapes for the first time, being aware of what they bring up in your memory and what they make you feel.
It is this creative approach to the visual world that has served her so well in her theatre work. The National Theatre’s Associate Director, Marianne Elliot said recently of her: ‘Bunny is extraordinary to work with. She is ever imagining and ever pushing at boundaries. She will calmly, but insistently, evolve an aesthetic on each production that serves every moment of the play, but that also gives an overall impression of clarity, context, excitement and wit. Her designs can be of such power that the audience, quite often, will literally gasp.’
Within three years of leaving art school, Bunny was designing at the National Theatre. This break came whilst she was working on Tennessee William’s Baby Doll, for Birmingham Rep; a tremendous production that then transferred to the National and London’s West End after its initial run, winning an Evening Standard Award for Best Design. Bunny described the moment she presented her model of the proposed set to the producers, saying that she never expected that they would say yes. The design – a re-creation of a three storey house – was so ambitious, so bold and on such a scale that she thought it would almost certainly be turned down. Needless to say the producers and director loved it, and Bunny’s ability to deliver beautiful and arresting theatre design on a huge scale has gone on to be a hallmark of her work.
Her extensive and impressive list of well-known productions and awards is too long to detail here, but in London she has, in addition to the National, worked at the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Globe, the Old Vic, and the Gate, as well as regional theatres all over the country; Bristol Old Vic, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Lyceum and the Tron Theatre to name a few. Bunny’s work was included in the Guardian’s ‘The 10 best theatre designs’ and she was the first woman to win not only the Olivier Award for Best Design but also the first woman to win the Evening Standard and Critic’s Circle Award as Best Designer.
She is hugely productive, and busy. Only last month she opened the musical Made in Dagenham, a design which includes full size air-fix models, a Ford Cortina, an American jeep and several bumper cars – and she is already back in production with a new show.
She is a whirlwind of creative energy, talent and enthusiasm combined with a deep love of theatre. She also has that extra special quality of being a lovely person.
Chancellor, in recognition of her achievements and her contribution to British theatre, I invite you to confer on Bunny Christie the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.