Friday, 29 August 2008

I Design for Life!

Apologies for the rather bad corruption of the Manic Street Preachers lyrics for the title. Forgive me, it's Friday!

This post is about a brand new designer, Tom Scutt (he designs for his livelihood - does the post title make sense now!?) Not only is he brand spanking new, he is also award-winning! Tom was not only a prize winner at the 2007 Linbury Biennial for his work at Headlong Theatre, he also picked up the Jocelyn Herbert award. So pretty talented, I'd say! And nice. So nice that he has agreed to answer a few questions and has also sent some of his sketches for the costume for Merchant of Venice. A sneak preview if you will.

Which project, that you have undertaken, are you most proud of?

I guess ‘proud’ is the wrong word, but every project gives a sense of fulfilment in at least one area – hopefully! I’ve just finished Metropolis with 60 children for Theatre Royal Bath which was an immense physical challenge, but then a tiny show for two in a London pub theatre offers up great mental challenges which are equally fulfilling when solved.

I think the achievement I’m most proud of is not actually a realised show: Winning one of four awards for the Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design last year, and its sister award The Jocelyn Herbert Prize, was extraordinary. It’s a beacon I’ve always looked toward with excitement and fear! Winning it has opened up so many doors and changed so much for me that I don’t really know what I’d be doing right now without it!

If you could produce designs for any production, what would that production be?
The eternal question! Luckily – it’s rare that a designer gets to choose what’s put on stage so the weight of that question is placed squarely on the shoulders of the producer and director! If I had to choose, I guess I’d have to say ‘Macbeth’. Greg Doran’s RSC production in 1999 with Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter was truly inspiring and the reason why I decided to go into Theatre Design. That, and in 1998 at the Worcester Swan a certain Mark Babych directed a very gawky 14 year old Tom Scutt as Fleance in the same play. I’ve come back to haunt him like Banquo’s ghost! It’s a play that’s been with me all my life and for that more than anything I’d love to create the world for it.

Can you describe a bit about the process you went through to design the set and costumes for The Merchant of Venice?
Mark and myself both came with our own initial concerns. His was how we move fluidly from Venice to Belmont, mine was about the colour and the texture of these worlds. We discovered a surface that allows for the both the watery, harsh, steely world of Venice and the vain, opulent, glowing palace of Belmont. This discovery started to dictate the rest of the process. Sliding doors allowed the set to be permeated or sealed off completely in what started to look increasingly like one of Portia’s caskets – a set than can at once appear alluring and deadly. We also found that it began to resemble what has become known as ‘the corporate bombsite’. A kind of decimated skyscraper that has sinister overtones of Ground Zero - a warning in itself of what might happen if money is allowed to come higher than God.

And so the process went on, one problem answering the next, moving progressively forward towards a complete world – one in which all faiths find themselves up against the biggest religion of all: money. It’s the one thing all characters have in common and both Mark and I felt that the idea of wearing one’s wealth on one’s sleeve was exactly right for the costuming of a masculine Venice driven by highly-pressured money-makers and a feminine Belmont inhabited in particular by one super-rich, appearance obsessed Portia. Some design decisions like this were made after weeks of wrangling, others, such as “what if the Prince of Arragon were an ageing Flamenco dancer??” were just great one liners over a cup of coffee!

What were the biggest challenges of designing for Merchant and what was most enjoyable about working on this production?
I think the biggest challenge and the most enjoyable element are one and the same for me. The issue of race within the play is such a difficult one. It is essential when approaching the design – the direction, and the performance for that matter – that one treads very carefully. Coming from a generation that is, one the whole, much more tolerant of race, sexuality and class, it can often be hard to enter into the mind of an individual who has the ability to spit at a stranger in the street, simply because they are a Jew. Both myself, Mark and David Fielder (Shylock) were keen to raise questions, not answer them, but also to treat Shylock first and foremost as a man. Not a religion. We were keen that he look very much like everybody else in the play.

I was also particularly interested in how, when backed into a corner, religion can all too often be used as a sword to defend oneself from harm rather than an arm to reach out – as ongoing world events never fail to demonstrate. If the first part of the play is about the people that are Shylock and Antonio, the court scene distils them simply to the religious symbols they stand for. This issue is not one to be taken lightly, nor one to be solved here with this production but it has given us all big challenges and immense pleasure in discovering more and more about as we continue through the process.


  1. love it ummm but what is portias costume?? pls respond we have a stage play about it soon

  2. Thanks for the comment. You can view more images from The Merchant of Venice at this link:

    or click on The Merchant of Venice label in the side bar....Portia is wearing the gold dress....