Tribute by Birrie le Roux
Acclaimed theatre designer Johan Engels unexpectedly died while designing West Side Story, abruptly ending an illustrious career. He had just completed the design for Keith Warner’s The Great Gatsby to be staged at the Dresden Opera House in December 2015. In his eulogy, opera director Warner said “You are one of the very few who knows how to think big, who energises our art form through a prodigious view of the power of theatre as a magic box in which the mere ordinary is never good enough. Where minimalism is seen only as a dereliction of duty in a war against the mundane. You are designer as magus”.
Johan started his career in the early 1970s, when merely a student; his brilliance was acknowledged at the Market Theatre and other theatres across South Africa. He enjoyed a prolific and internationally acclaimed career as set and costume designer. His death leaves a huge vacuum, but his legacy continues in theatres across the world including Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Chicago, Pelléas et Mélisande for the Welsh National Opera, and many others.
To all of us who knew and worked with Johan, he was inspiring, mischievous and an exuberant genius.
Birrie le Roux