Set in a village in Imperial Russia, 1905, Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of Tevye (played by Omid Djalili in Chichester), Golde and their five beautiful daughters. The matchmaker Yente starts to devise marriage plans for the daughters but they have other ideas.

The designer behind the production, West Sussex-based Lez Brotherston, has long-running working relationships with choreographer Matthew Bourne, and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and a history of high-profile theatre work. He spoke to EDWIN GILSON.

Where do you start when designing the set and costumes for a production like this?

I’ve never seen any previous productions of Fiddler on the Roof but at any rate the starting point is always the script. You get to know the characters from reading the script and you build a world around them. Then it’s a collaboration between the designer and director about how you’re going to tell the story. I then set about preparing the costumes and stage design in model form and in drawings, fleshing it out like that. It’s always a shared vision.

Fiddler on the Roof documents a time of great social change, with old traditions making way for new ideas and technological advancements. How did you illustrate that ideological shift, visually?

The characters are all coming from a very traditional way of life. It’s set in 1905 and it sort of defines itself. The arrival of a new world is embodied in the fact that the big news for the family in the first part of the play is them getting a sewing machine. It’s all in the script. There’s nothing we could do to distract from that.

You must have worked on productions in which the original plot is situated in a modern context. Is that a risk? Has it ever backfired?

It completely depends on the piece. With Fiddler it’s hard to put a spin on it. It’s so specific. It doesn’t work to move it to 1930s Berlin, for instance. Other things, like Shakespeare, you can reimagine modernising. But Fiddler is about ethnic cleansing and Jews being forced to leave Russia. It’s very much of a certain time. There have been more performances in America than in the UK, partly because there is more of a Jewish audience there.

What kind of relationship does a designer have with actors, in general?

You talk with them, you design for them, you create characters for them. You get pretty close to them. Sadly, the way theatre has gone in Britain the design has to be delivered sometimes before the production is even cast. So you don’t get much time to work with the actor to develop the character and setting. It’s due to a lack of funding. I used to do a lot of opera in Germany where have they a long rehearsal period. As a designer, you have the time to build a version of the set and look at it with the creative team and the actors. We don’t have the funds to do that here.

What was it like working with Omid Djalili, who is more known for comedy than acting?

It’s a different kind of discussion with him. He’s interested in practicalities more than a trained actor who would be more interested in building a character. Most actor training is about building something on top of yourself, working from the inside out, whereas he looks at it from the outside in. It’s bit of a technical way to describe it, but stand-ups look at what you can offer them and then they make the character, whereas more traditional actors immerse themselves in the character first. Omid does it in the way that Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders did it [Brotherston designed the set for the comedy duo’s live show for almost 20 years].

How did you come to start working with renowned dance director Matthew Bourne?

One of his dancers had seen something I’d done before and suggested me to Matt. He asked me to do Highland Fling [Bourne’s 1994 ballet]. Swan Lake was the next show Matt was planning to do, and I wasn’t supposed to be designing that but then the original guy pulled out and it fell to me. Most of my work with Matt is the same as theatre and musicals – it starts with characters.

Fiddler on the Roof, Chichester Festival Theatre, July 10 to September 2, For more information and tickets visit or call 01243 781312