The de­signer talks to Sharon Verghis about his ex­tra­or­di­nary life in the theatre

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines -

BRIAN Thom­son’s stately white ter­race stands out like an ex­cla­ma­tion mark, thanks to its bright red door. Lo­cated in a quiet lane off busy South Dowl­ing Street in in­ner-city Syd­ney, it has been home to the Aus­tralian stage de­signer since the mid-1980s, and that red door guards a nar­row cor­ri­dor that opens up into a won­der­fully eclec­tic space.

Mot­ley ob­jects har­vested bower­bird-style from theatre sets, prop sup­pli­ers and gal­leries grace the white walls, but there is a crisp dis­ci­pline to their dis­play that pre­vents a sense of clut­ter. Imag­ine two spindly pink flamin­gos, a Coke sign, a kew­pie doll in a glass box, graphic prints, traf­fic signs, sculp­ture and pop art designs, all strate­gi­cally ar­ranged, and you get a sense of his home, work stu­dio and sanc­tu­ary.

Thom­son, 66, is him­self a dec­o­ra­tive pres­ence. Re­splen­dent in a brightly coloured trop­i­cal shirt dec­o­rated with par­rots, he has a dark, owlish gaze, a van­ish­ing hair­line (‘‘It was once pink be­cause some­body rubbed cochineal into my hair, and I bleached it with Ajax, and one time I sprayed it with chrome paint, which is why I don’t have much of it left’’), and a preter­nat­u­rally boy­ish vis­age marked to­day with fa­tigue.

By the time we meet, he has al­ready notched up his usual two-hour round trip to Syd­ney Olympic Park in Home­bush, re­hearsal base for Opera Australia’s $11.5 mil­lion pro­duc­tion of La travi­ata for the in­au­gu­ral Handa Opera on Syd­ney Har­bour ex­trav­a­ganza (he refers to it non­cha­lantly as ‘‘ this mad, huge thing on the water’’). It’s cer­tainly a be­he­moth, with Thom­son’s de­sign in­cor­po­rat­ing, among other things, a gi­ant float­ing stage, a ‘‘ space cap­sule’’ glass pod and 3.5-tonne chan­de­lier dec­o­rated with 10,000 Swarovski crys­tals. He gri­maces when asked if he’s feel­ing any pres­sure. ‘‘ Oh, of course. You think, ‘ God, not only do you have to build it and then re­hearse it, but then you have the per­form the thing.’ And it hasn’t stopped rain­ing.’’

The nerves are there, cer­tainly, but this is a de­signer with im­pec­ca­ble form when it comes to the big stuff. Once named by famed Syd­ney theatre critic Harry Kip­pax as be­ing among the hand­ful of the world’s great­est theatre de­sign­ers, Thom­son has been the

Win­ner of the 1996 Tony award for best scenic de­sign for the Broad­way re­vival of The King and I, his de­sign trade­mark is, per­haps, that he has none.

Ev­ery Thom­son set is a small world in it­self, from the starkly min­i­mal­ist (wit­ness his early Chekhovs and Ib­sens for Neil Arm­field, for ex­am­ple) to the glit­ter­ingly un­seen hand be­hind some of the coun­try’s big­gest hits and most visu­ally ar­rest­ing stage sets dur­ing the past four decades. His cred­its range from the orig­i­nal Aus­tralian and London pro­duc­tions of Je­sus Christ Su­per­star and the orig­i­nal Melbourne sea­son of Hair, to the 1975 cult clas­sic The Rocky Hor­ror Picture Show, and the stage pro­duc­tion of The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. sump­tu­ous (last year’s deca­dent La bo­heme for OA) to so­phis­ti­cated hi-tech (2010’s LEDs­tud­ded Bliss was a stand­out). Idio­syn­cratic and un­ortho­dox, he finds in­spi­ra­tion in the most un­likely places: kitsch, 40s gang­ster movies, sci-fi clas­sics, sphinxes, Uluru, aero­plane flight, Re­nais­sance art.

Seated at an old-fash­ioned Formica ta­ble lit­tered with fash­ion and de­sign mag­a­zines, Thom­son is charm­ing, gos­sipy and vol­u­ble, with an en­ter­tain­ingly en­cy­clo­pe­dic mem­ory when it comes to the Aus­tralian stage. Out it all spools: rec­ol­lec­tions about its creative turn­ing points and bright­est tal­ents, its buried skele­tons and in­ternecine feuds. He’s acer­bic about en­e­mies and deeply loyal to friends and he­roes, is re­fresh­ingly can­did about his own run-ins with theatre peers (there have been a few, I learn).

There is a for­mi­da­bly keen in­tel­lect, too. He flits from Tom Wolfe, Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha to spiegel­tents, Nazism, and Ge­orge Grosz with the joy­ful en­thu­si­asm of the au­to­di­dact. He says he has a men­tal li­brary of ‘‘ mil­lions of ideas, mil­lions of favourite paint­ings’’.

In some ways, Thom­son’s per­sonal leg­end is as big a part of the story as his sets. Burst­ing on to the theatre scene in the late 60s, he mor­phed seem­ingly overnight from ar­chi­tec­ture school dropout to pen­ni­less, pink-haired art scene rebel and then to one of the most sought-af­ter young de­sign­ers of that era, count­ing among his friends the likes of Harry M. Miller, Barry Humphries and Jim Sharman. He mixed with a bo­hemian lot that in­cluded Kings Cross pub­lisher Juanita Nielsen, gallery di­rec­tor Frank Wat­ters and critic and cu­ra­tor Daniel Thomas.

His din­ner par­ties were leg­endary (staged as artis­tic events, they in­volved serv­ing allred food, or ex­otic Euro­pean deli goods out of un­la­belled tin cans or, in one mem­o­rable case, im­mo­lat­ing pa­per screens af­ter din­ner) and he was once ‘‘ semi-ar­rested’’ for paint­ing a part of his lo­cal street red. (He talked him­self out of a charge by bor­ing the po­lice silly with a bar­rage of bab­ble about his he­roes Warhol and Mar­shall Mcluhan.)

He made a name with his ‘‘ hap­pen­ings’’ — one in­volv­ing a stripper at the Way­side Chapel was breath­lessly tut-tut­ted over in the Sun­day tabloids — and lit up the ex­te­rior of the Metro Theatre for Hair’s 1969 Syd­ney open­ing. He once shadow-painted singer Normie Rowe on a big roll of pa­per be­cause ‘‘ I was ob­sessed with shad­ows for a while’’.

Thom­son grins as he re­calls that younger, mouthy, big-talk­ing self, all en­ergy and spiky ar­ro­gance. He was a smar­tarse, he says, with an opin­ion on ev­ery­thing. He has re­mained a stub­bornly strong, un­apolo­getic ad­vo­cate for his own ideas, a driven per­fec­tion­ist.

While singing his praises, Arm­field once re­marked that ‘‘ I think some di­rec­tors are pos­si­bly fright­ened a bit of Brian’’, though OA’S Lyn­don Ter­racini de­murs and says

di­rec­tors are ‘‘ en­er­gised and stim­u­lated’’, rather. Priscilla’s di­rec­tor Si­mon Phillips says ‘‘ he’s very im­pul­sive and fun to work with in the de­sign phase and not at all pre­cious. He’s play­ful, child­like: a great qual­ity. But I think he goes through agony watch­ing the de­sign re­alised in the theatre. It gets rid­dled with hu­man im­per­fec­tion and other el­e­ments re­quired to make the pro­duc­tion work come into play: light­ing tow­ers, stacks of speak­ers. He hates it.’’

He’s a mer­cu­rial fig­ure, cer­tainly, rest­less, smart and eas­ily bored. He’ll of­ten stay up all night work­ing at break­neck speed if in­spi­ra­tion strikes, and says he rel­ishes im­pos­si­ble chal­lenges, prov­ing him­self right and ev­ery­one else wrong.

I’m amused by a 1990 fea­ture in The Week­end Aus­tralian where peers paid glow­ing trib­ute to him as one of Australia’s most vi­sion­ary de­sign­ers (de­signer Bill Hay­cock said he was the one who ‘‘ has dragged Aus­tralian stage de­sign scream­ing into the 20th cen­tury’’) only for Thom­son to respond bluntly that he ad­mired no one be­cause ‘‘ there isn’t any­one out­stand­ing in Aus­tralian stage de­sign. I don’t think any are orig­i­nal.’’

He has a bit­ing con­tempt for medi­ocrity: he once sav­aged the ‘‘ ap­palling cof­fee room moral­ity and look’’ of the Syd­ney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, and re­mains an­gered over the de­ba­cle sur­round­ing his hero Joern Ut­zon’s de­sign.

On this swel­ter­ingly hot late sum­mer af­ter­noon, he’s in a can­did, de­li­ciously defam­a­tory mood, rak­ing over the hot coals of ev­ery­thing from his fall­ing-out with longterm col­league Arm­field over Arm­field’s decision to not ap­point him as the de­signer for the Ring cy­cle in Melbourne next year (Robert Cousins got the job), to his long-ago bat­tle with Aus­tralian ex­pa­tri­ate di­rec­tor Eli­jah Moshinsky over a de­sign for a 1996 Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera pro­duc­tion he felt was his (Moshinsky and the Met deny this).

Un­der that cara­pace of con­fi­dence is vul­ner­a­bil­ity. He con­fesses to some­times sec­ond-guess­ing him­self on his abil­ity to de­liver on his more am­bi­tious ideas, can still quote ver­ba­tim the sav­age Amer­i­can re­views for Humphries’s House­wife, Su­per­star! on Broad­way in 1977, which he de­signed. Win­ning the Tony in 1996 proved mar­vel­lously cathar­tic.

Born in Syd­ney in 1946, Thom­son was reared in Campsie, in the city’s south­west. When he was eight his bank man­ager fa­ther re­lo­cated the fam­ily to the tiny, iso­lated set­tle­ment of Quairad­ing, two hours from Perth. They lived there for five years be­fore mov­ing to Perth proper, where the young Thom­son — in­tense, ‘‘ a bit of loner, I sup­pose’’ — dis­cov­ered a fas­ci­na­tion for the built en­vi­ron­ment, spend­ing his free time wan­der­ing around build­ing sites, as well as mak­ing lit­tle col­lages and copy­ing mag­a­zine cov­ers.

A flair for tech­ni­cal draw­ing, un­der­pinned by an affin­ity for physics and math­e­mat­ics, opened up a dream of be­com­ing an ar­chi­tect. He ul­ti­mately en­rolled in an ar­chi­tec­ture de­gree at the Univer­sity of NSW, where he dis­cov­ered pop art and started im­mers­ing him­self in its vi­brant, edgy world. He re­calls his grow­ing frus­tra­tion at how starkly it con­trasted with the rigid­ity and con­ser­vatism of ar­chi­tec­ture as it was then taught.

Dis­mayed, too, by the dearth of Ut­zon- style in­spi­ra­tional ar­chi­tec­ture around him, he grad­u­ally be­came dis­en­chanted with his stud­ies. He dropped out of univer­sity, and be­gan hang­ing out in Syd­ney’s lively un­der­ground arts scene in the late 60s, do­ing ‘‘ bits and pieces of stuff’’: posters for a jeans shop, gallery in­vi­ta­tions. Then came a fate­ful night in about 1969 when he met Sharman at a ham­burger shop in Ox­ford Street. Sharman was then do­ing Hair in Syd­ney, and the everopin­ion­ated Thom­son told him, ‘‘ Oh, you shouldn’t be do­ing this stupid stuff, you should be do­ing other things.’’ He cack­les. ‘‘ I was to­tally ar­ro­gant.’’ De­spite this, the pair bonded, and Sharman asked him to col­lab­o­rate on a pro­duc­tion of the rock opera Tommy. Although it failed to get off the ground, it sparked his in­ter­est in theatre.

Sharman next asked Thom­son to de­sign his pro­duc­tion of As You Like It for the Old Tote. Thom­son’s de­sign for the set — as brightly coloured as a car­toon, with per­spex cubes and the set wrapped up like a gi­ant gift — caused a stir. One critic branded it ‘‘ visu­ally per­fect’’, an­other slammed it as ‘‘ a yawn­ing void of in­com­pre­hen­sion’’. Then came Richard Wher­rett’s pro­duc­tion of Ber­tolt Brecht’s Ar­turo Ui, with John Bell in the ti­tle role. Thom­son, ex­hil­a­rated by Brecht’s ‘‘ ex­tra­or­di­nary’’ text, and work­ing at light­ning speed, re­duced each of the play’s 15 scenes to a sym­bolic ob­ject, scrib­bling them down on a piece of pa­per and com­ing up with a near per­fect blue­print in just more than an hour.

Images just ‘‘ popped in my head’’, he re­calls; in this case, the work of col­lage artist John Heartfield and Warhol’s elec­tric chair images.

Brecht’s lan­guage lit his creative fires, he says, as did Pa­trick White’s — he be­lieves White’s writ­ing al­lows the reader to imag­ine, to see worlds and spa­ces for them­selves, dove­tail­ing with his own be­lief in the key to great set de­sign — cre­at­ing spa­ces that al­low the au­di­ence to imag­ine.

It was in Ar­turo Ui, Thom­son adds, where he was for the first time in­spired cre­atively by a great ac­tor’s craft. ‘‘ John Bell’s per­for­mance was as­ton­ish­ing. It was prob­a­bly the first thing that broke my feel­ing of theatre be­ing a load of old peo­ple pre­tend­ing to be some­one else.’’

His first big break came when Miller asked him to de­sign the 1970-71 Melbourne sea­son of Hair.

It was pure pop art: ‘‘ It had a big rain­bow and it had bill­boards, neon, it was sur­rounded by all this sub­ur­ban junk, old tele­vi­sions, fridges, wash­ing ma­chines.’’ He got paid $1000, and ‘‘ that, for me, was wow . . . I’d al­ways thought, I want to be an artist and I want to be paid $1000 for do­ing some­thing, but I didn’t know what that some­thing was. It turned out to be a piece of theatre. And bam, the next thing was Su­per­star.’’

Bam in­deed. The pre­co­cious art rebel was on the move. Thom­son was a mere 24 when he took on the de­sign for Je­sus Christ Su­per­star’s Aus­tralian in­car­na­tion. What he came up with — an­gled and sus­pended steel walk­ways and a gi­ant do­dec­a­he­dron that opened up like some fu­tur­is­tic me­chan­i­cal flower — would prove a sen­sa­tion. His hands trace a ball shape in the air as he talks dream­ily about Pla­tonic solids and pen­tag­o­nal faces, that ar­chi­tec­tural sen­si­bil­ity in full flight. ‘‘ I don’t think any of us re­alised the power of that de­sign. For 1972, it was stag­ger­ing. Even now, I look back and think, ‘ God, how did it all hap­pen?’ ’’

Su­per­star opened at the Capi­tol Theatre in Syd­ney in May 1972 and made stars out of not just the cast, which in­cluded Jon English, but the show’s long-haired de­signer. Com­poser An­drew Lloyd Web­ber came call­ing and took the show and its cre­ators to London to launch Su­per­star there at the Palace Theatre in Au­gust 1972. It was a huge suc­cess, go­ing on to run for eight years.

On the strength of the roy­al­ties, about £50 a week, Thom­son was able to live com­fort­ably in London for years, and was of­fered a flood of work, in­clud­ing an An­thony New­ley mu­si­cal on the West End. But he and Sharman turned their backs on the big

Brian Thom­son, mas­ter of il­lu­sion

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