|Died||15 December 2018(aged 94)|
|Employer||Royal Shakespeare Company|
Ralph Koltai CBE, RDI (31 July 1924 – 15 December 2018), was a German-born, naturalised British stage designer, who worked as associate designer of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and latterly as a sculptor.
Koltai was born on 31 July 1924, in Berlin, Germany, to a family of Jewish descent. He was the only child of a Hungarian-born doctor Alfred and his wife Charlotte (née Weinstein) Koltai who was German. Their son was on the Kindertransport from Brussels to England in 1939. His parents survived the Holocaust; his mother was able to settle in Britain, while his father began again in Cuba. Koltai worked as a translator at the Nuremberg trials and later for the British Intelligence Corps as an investigator of war crimes. His military service ended in 1948.
From 1943, Koltai trained to a commercial artist at Epsom School of Art before he entered the military. From 1948 to 1951, he studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins) where he was later the head of theatre design between 1965 and 1972.
Career as a set designer
Koltai was influenced by European theatre practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht and Vsevolod Meyerhold. "What I wanted to do was to find a single image which would express what the author was saying, rather than just provide illustrations," he said of his design principles. "I wanted to show the idea, the concept." He told critic Michael Billington in 1984 that he attempted to find "a style that seeks to find the right metaphor for each work." In 1963, for the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, London, he set Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy (also known as The Representative), about Pope Pius XII's connection to the Nazis. He later commented: "My concept was to set it in a gas chamber that was also the Pope’s study—it showed that the Vatican and the extermination chambers were part of each other." His first work for the RSC had been the previous year's production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
In 1984, when an RSC production of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac was being performed on Broadway, he told critic Michael Billington that he saw himself as a painter who treats the play as an art object. He commented that he did not "respond well to being told what is wanted. I like to make a conceptual contribution where you half need to direct the play yourself."
In later life he lived in France taking found objects on local farms made of wood, metal and turning them into sculptures. One of these creations, a tree root, was surrounded by water in his stage design for Samuel West's revival of Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2006. In 2010 his metal collage sculptures were exhibited at the Royal National Theatre.
National Life Stories conducted an oral history interview (C1173/01) with Hudson in 2002–2003 for its An Oral History of Theatre Design collection held by the British Library. Koltai also took part in Rambert's 90th anniversary oral history project, talking about his work for dance.
The year before his death, Koltai was interviewed for TheatreVOICE at the Victoria and Albert Museum by Heather Neill. Of his career, he said “Whatever talent I had, it was instinct; I’ve never made a decision. I often arrive at the resolution by accident. The talent that I have is to recognise the accident when it happens.”
Koltai was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1983 New Year Honours and was recognised as a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) by the Royal Society of Arts in 1984. He appeared as a "castaway" on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs on 23 August 1998.
Koltai died on 15 December 2018 at the age of 94.
- Quinn, Michael (17 December 2018). "Obituary: Ralph Koltai – 'the most influential stage designer in British theatre in the latter half of the 20th century'". The Stage. London. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
- O'Brien, Timothy (18 December 2018). "Ralph Koltai obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
- "Ralph Koltai obituary". The Times. 17 December 2018. Retrieved 18 December 2018. (subscription required)
- Billington, Michael (16 December 1984). "Stage Designer With an Poet's Pallette". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
- Rees, Jasper (22 September 2010). "Ralph Koltai, from theatre designer to sculptor". The Arts Desk. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
- National Life Stories, "Koltai, Ralph (1 of 28) An Oral History of Theatre Design", The British Library Board, 2003. Retrieved 1 February 2018
- Ralph Koltai's oral history project in the Rambert Archive https://vimeo.com/235307475
- Neill, Heather (8 May 2017). "Theatre designer Ralph Koltai speaks of his career spanning 67 years (part 1)". TheatreVOICE. Retrieved 25 March 2019.
- "No. 49212". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1982. p. 8.
- "Desert Island Discs – Castaway : Ralph Koltai". BBC. Retrieved 18 August 2014.