Theatre Critic and Journalist

Grand Designs: Tom Scutt

Grand Designs: Tom Scutt

Published in The Stage, 14.06.2012

Approximately 90 minutes into the recent West End revival of Absent Friends, Tom Scutt’s set suddenly made perfect sense. Sure, it was a typically gauche 1970s living room, all kitsch and velour, but, on closer inspection, it owed as much to the stone age as the 1970s. The spider plants and totemic wooden animal carvings rooted the play’s misogyny and masculinity in the dawn of man. It was a remarkably savvy bit of design that, all on its own, seemed to say: ’T’was ever thus’.

“A 1970s living room set is a 1970s living room set,” Scutt explains bluntly but without superiority. For all his intellectual confidence, he fidgets as he sits. It could be the setting – the hotel cafe is too posh for both of us – but it makes him seem modest and boyish. “Even if it’s naturalistic, it needs to speak another language. As much as possible, I try to take it beyond design. Design should go beyond design.”

By which, I think, he means that design does more than create space and setting. Scutt’s designs usually involve a similar penny-drop moment. They read clearly and cleverly – concealing their symbols at first, until the text momentarily resonates with and reveals the thought process. The cluster of white balloons he used for Constellations chimes with the brain tissue, quantum particles, storm clouds and parallel universes in Nick Payne’s play – the giant cube that dominated the Olivier stage in Mike Bartlett’s 13 spoke of being boxed in and needing to think outside the box. A Scutt design can really illuminate a play.

In a sense, he works rather like a director. “I do like to get stuck into jobs that aren’t officially mine,” he says. “When you have a really successful collaboration, you’re on each other’s patch the whole time.”

Working with Natalie Abrahami for the first time, he arrived with an annotated script and she with a storyboard.

His collaboration with Rupert Goold works similarly: “Rupert thinks like a designer, which is great. Infuriating sometimes, but fantastic.”

The two met when Scutt won the Linbury Prize in 2007 and, with it, the chance to design a Headlong show. Since then, he has designed both of Goold’s recent RSC productions, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice. Goold’s Headlong has been full of bright young talent – Ben Power, Lucy Prebble, Robert Icke, Ella Hickson. Scutt fits perfectly.

They are together again for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the Threesixty theatre tent in Kensington Gardens (“It’s bigger than the bloody Olivier”). Two years ago, its high-tech, wrap-around Peter Pan reduced Neverland to a screensaver. There was some surprise when Goold and his creative team were announced – they felt somehow too good for the project.

However, its central challenge sort of defines both Goold and Scutt: “You have this real pull to reimagine,” says the designer, “and yet, in terms of people’s loyalties, it’s akin to the Bible. There are two opposing forces – staying true to it and staying true to yourself.”

The solution has come through a characteristically considered aesthetic – the cycle of wood from Narnian forests to real-world wardrobes (“with all the religious overtones of carpentry”) and beyond, to paper and books. Scutt’s Aslan, a larger-than-life-size puppet in the War Horse style (“they just Coca-Colaed it”), has a mane of autumnal leaves and bark-like skin.

Large-scale puppetry is nothing new for Scutt, having designed two city-wide processions through Cardiff while studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He felt pushed towards an academic subject – “English at Cambridge” – but it simply never appealed. The thought explains a lot about his style and, like so many Cambridge English graduates, he admits to harbouring ambitions in directing.

It was at RWCMD, however, that he met Max Humphries, his regular puppet-maker, who has made – and, halfway through rehearsals, remade – Aslan. “Any puppet-maker will tell you cats are the worst because the movement is so fluid and it’s got to be silent.”

Logistics aside (Scutt jokingly describes his role as “traffic control”), the other main challenge has been the video – central to the production’s brief, even if not his natural preference. “Video can completely kill – stultify – a show, because it just feels so cold. It’s such a powerful tool, but it has the power to crush everything onstage. So we’ve tried to keep everything tactile. We didn’t want it to feel like a computer game.”

Such novel challenges are crucial for the young designer. It is easy to forget he is only 28, such is the level he has worked at since graduating five years ago. That has meant his ambitions have shifted severally, especially after designing for the Olivier. “If you’re driven by ladders, you have to recalibrate and it becomes less about places and more about people and projects. It’s about creating families you want to create with and theatre you want to make, rather than theatre you’re asked to do,” he says.

Nor does he think he is unique in such speedy progressions: “Things are moving quickly for young designers and a lot of my contemporaries are moving very fast, into big institutions. Something’s happened to make the trust open up slightly – slightly, not hugely. These people have grown up watching more progressive, interesting theatre and that’s feeding back in very quickly.”

“But the British system is very much hierarchical, so while the process and approach might be changing, that hierarchy still stands.”

The ladders still exist, but, for Scutt at least, the penny has dropped.

Photograph: Rob Grieg

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