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