November 16, 1991

Setting the Scene

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Shaun Gurton talks with Murray Bramwell about his designs for the Adelaide Festival and the State Theatre Company’s final show for the 1991 season- Cabaret.

It has been a busy year for Shaun Gurton. Apart from designing five of this season’s productions, the Associate Director of the State Theatre Company went on a six week exchange to China. He also designed Mer de Glace, Richard Meale’s new work for the Australian Opera. His most recent projects have been designing Shadow and Splendour, Jim Sharman’s new play which will premiere at the Festival in March, and Cabaret, the final work in the State season which opens in the Playhouse tonight.

Last year’s return to Adelaide to join State marks a full circle for Gurton who worked as resident designer for George Ogilvie back in 1972. Up to that point he had worked as an actor – so why did he make the jump?

“I don’t know. I was twenty-four. My whole life was the theatre. It started when I was twelve in Oliver. I wanted to be an actor and a director. I didn’t want to be a designer – it was something that started to happen. It is bizarre to say the things that affected you, but I did see Edward Gordon Craig’s pictures when I was in my late teens and I did read Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and I do remember seeing the RSC’s The Winter’s Tale in the huge white box- it was the last of the box series designed in the late Sixties by Christopher Morley.

“I applied to be trainee director at Melbourne Theatre Company and then for State. I didn’t get to do any directing but I did a lot of acting and that was the beginning of my feeling for minimalism and the non-decorative. My first design was as a mask-maker when I was doing a lot of commedia dell’arte work and George pushed the idea. Then when we started Alpha Beta he said- why don’t you do it? After that I did Journey’s End. Then we came to the Playhouse and I started working with Rodney Fisher.”

After his stint in Adelaide Gurton, headed overseas. The Grand Tour. To Poland to see Kantor and Grotowski and the UK to see Koltai and John Moore. He worked in Britain and was doing well when for personal reasons he decided to return to Australia to work free lance. Working mostly in Melbourne he designed the premiere productions for five David Williamson plays, a succession of operas for Victorian State Opera and, for director Neil Armfield, productions of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow.

It was also in Melbourne that Gurton first began working with Simon Phillips and their working partnership continued when Phillips took over State in 1990. They began last year with Marat/Sade for the Festival and then continued their reputation for visually arresting productions with their Magritte-inspired version of The Comedy of Errors and this year’s winner, Julius Caesar. With its suave use of high tech and classical decor the production is one that Gurton is particularly proud of.

“I felt that with Julius Caesar we found a way of doing something we’d thought about in concept and brought to the stage. We thought- yes, that’s what we wanted to do. There was a logic in in the devices we used to serve that play. It wasn’t makeshift. It was based on an extraordinary sense of movement in an enclosed room. I’m fascinated by these opposites.

“Simon has a great love of theatricality -and that’s interesting. We talk about a concept and he’ll take it and really use it. There are not a lot of directors I’ve worked with as a designer who’ll do that and who will really want to try it, who will come back and say- yes. Julius Caesar was a nightmare for him to rehearse because it was all about fluidity and movement and he had to really work very hard to retain that. It’s an area he and I are still very interested in. It was fascinating, especially for a young audience who said it was like watching a film on stage – and yet it wasn’t.”

Two days after Julius Caesar opened, and the day after he presented his design details for Mer de Glace, Shaun Gurton and his family headed for the Shanghai People’s Arts Theatre for a six week exchange. The idea began when the Shanghai company had come to the Spoleto Festival and wanted an Australian to come and work in China. Unlike others who have opted to present European plays, Gurton wanted to work with a Chinese director on a Chinese play.

“I had six weeks to design the show and get it on,” he recalls. “Normally you just wouldn’t do it like that. The script, in Chinese, turned up on my desk three weeks before I was ready to leave. I had to get it translated just to get some idea what I was getting into. It was a very dense little piece called Old Forest -written by Lao Lin, one of the teachers at the Shanghai Academy.”

Gurton describes the resources as very meagre. “The theatre had been built five or six years ago but it looked old already. It was built in their modern style which is very like the late Fifties- early Sixties. It’s very basic and the difficulty is that they have money initially but none to maintain it. There is no upkeep. Revenue from the box office is very minimal. It comes from showing videos of Western movies. It’s either Chinese Opera, acrobats or Western movies. There are thirteen million people in Shanghai and the company can hardly fill their five hundred seat theatre for a three week season.”

He also discovered that rehearsal procedures were not what he expected. “They don’t have stage management. The term doesn’t exist. When it comes down to it there is no-one in charge. They would say – `this is the Chinese way, they all know their job well and the script well and when the moment comes they will all do it.’ There is no-one to co-ordinate. In the end the loudest voice wins- and in this case it happpened to be the sound man. He would sit in the back of the auditorium and shout – `you don’t know what you are doing.’ There was a procedure but it felt so risky.”

“I wanted to use bamboo and they wanted me to do a Western naturalistic set. That’s what they felt they did best because of the whole Russian influence. Stanislavsky has a lot to answer for in the Chinese theatre ! I said I wanted to use bamboo because it was cheap and plentiful. I wanted to make screens of split bamboo. At the first production meeting, after a long pause they said -`we’re terribly sorry but there isn’t any bamboo in China’ ! So you start from there . You had to be absolutely convincing. I realised after a week of being diplomatic that unless I said `I want this’ it wouldn’t happen. Once they agreed to it, it was fine.”

Gurton was captivated by the experience and wants to return for a longer spell next time. Although, arriving back in Adelaide took some adjustment- especially, as he puts it, “coming back to Stephen Sewell’s mind.”

The design for King Golgrutha was a challenge for Gurton. “It was really risky. I had to really convince people that it would work. You need a lot of commitment from the people you work with. Golgrutha couldn’t have happened unless we’d done Marat Sade or Comedy of Errors or Julius Caesar. They are all linked. Certain things happened in Golgrutha, things we’d played around with in the past which we now began to push a little further. So you say- I hardly want a straight line, I want nightmare. The set is suspended and I want it to appear like it’s going to fall down. If you are going to do that, it’s hard. It had to be worked out.”

Working on both Shadow and Splendour and Cabaret at the same time has meant very contrasting procedures for Gurton. “It’s usually a process of three to four months. Working with Jim has been very immediate . It depends on who you are working with. Jim’s whole obsession is with this play because he’s not doing anything else. You have to gear your mind into thinking how he is working. It becomes very concentrated and fast. Whereas because Simon and I know each other well and because we work together -it’s a good thing and a bad thing- you tend to take it over a period of time. You might talk about it and leave it for a while. I’m a great one for thinking about things and letting them sit in the mind.”

Gurton spent several intensive planning sessions with Sharman. “The first time we talked about the imagery, feelings, the sense of freedom and grandeur, of shadow and splendour as real things. Once it’s `there’ you can think about the detail, but it’s all about the balance between the big shapes.”

“The first thing Jim said was that this is a play about Japan but I don’t want it to look a lot like Japan. I want it to be about people from different worlds all lost in the same melting pot. We don’t want it to be Japan but something beautiful and sinister . The link through it is the painter Rothko – those strange paintings that have such mystery and depth to them. It is a dream play to a certain degree. I mention Rothko but you would have no way of seeing how it was an influence -just as when Simon and I did a production of Joe Egg, and the influence was Francis Bacon, there was no way you would know it.”

Evolving the design concept for Cabaret was a longer process. Gurton says it usually takes three meetings but in this case, as he explains, it also meant some re-thinking.

“We started when Golgrutha was on. Because Cabaret was a musical we thought we’d do something a bit traditional and we thought up an idea for it. The next time we met was just before Jonah and by then we thought our idea was totally ludicrous. We hadn’t thought about it enough- we were just thinking about something that would work. We started thinking about why we were doing it and decided that even though it was a musical, it should have some edge to it.

“We had the idea that the MC controls the world and that he controls what’s going on like a spider in his web. Then we came back to an idea, which we had rejected and now returned to, and that was the swastika. We thought – the show is about the shift to Nazism. We were looking for the unifying image so the swastika became very interesting. It was a powerful image, very clear to the audience – which worried us a little, would it be too strong ?

“We also wanted the band on stage – and we like having Musical Director, Ian McDonald appearing in various guises in our productions. So the band is one arm- as if the music and the band control the show. We also wanted those little pockets of run-down middle class reality that are important in the play. More than half of the action takes place outside the Kit Kat Club. That’s when we got the idea of using these truck units that actually lock into the swastika and can still revolve . It seemed a nice geometric idea – which we have to be careful of because Simon and I sometimes tend to like everything having order and a symmetry.

“Then we needed to ask what is surrounding this middle class world and this Hitler world? – and this is a conceit of mine- the Bauhaus was happening at that moment. One of the most important architectural movements occuring in the world and it was about to go and disappear. We decided to make a whole cyclorama of glass bricks and it seems to have a strange cage feeling that envelopes things. So we have three contrasting stage images – the cleanness and danger of the swastika, the quaintness of old Berlin, and the Bauhaus. It’s a bit of a test and each step, each meeting creates each one.”

So has Gurton changed his views on minimal design ? “I went through a stage where I did things very simply. But I like tricks. I like that the audience has to guess what I’ll do next. I don’t have a house style. I have no problem in a year’s work ranging from high naturalism to collage form to an absolutely minimal stage. In fact I love it. I try not to present just one thought, I actually think it’s many things. I’ve never been a designer where people say – that’s definitely a Shaun Gurton design. I don’t want that. I want them to think – that’s interesting, that’s a bit different.”

“Designs are his Scene” The Advertiser, November 16, 1991, p.11.

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