Set Piece

With the dance version of the classic opera Carmen, The Car Man, due to preview in London’s West End next week, the spotlight falls on its revered set designer, award-winning Lez Brotherston.

Lez Brotherston’s career got off to a flying start in 1984 with the film Letter to Brezhnev, which, despite a miniscule budget, went on to become a modest hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Had he wanted to, Brotherston could easily have capitalised on its success, even though most of it was filmed on location and the designer’s role amounted to little more than acquiring props, by fair means or foul.

“It was far from glamorous,” he recalls. “I think my budget was £1000 with an extra £500 for costumes. There was a lot of running around asking people for favours. We shot scenes in each other’s houses and if we were filming in a place where we hadn’t asked permission, we’d shoot it as quickly as possible and run like hell.”

The only reason he became involved with the film was because one of the producers used to run a youth theatre he’d been involved with in his hometown of Liverpool. “I’d just left college and didn’t have a job. She asked if I’d like to go and design this film. I was all at sea because it turned out there was so little designing involved. It wasn’t the sort of film where you’d say, ‘Oh, that’s well designed!’ after seeing it.”

Brotherston’s connections with the film industry continued when he came to London to study design at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design. “To pay my way, I worked as an assistant to Martin Adams; a brilliant prop and costume maker in films. I worked with him on The Last Emperor, Highlander, Brazil, and many others. It wasn’t at all glamorous, as we did all our stuff in his workshop in Chelsea and it would be collected and whisked off to the location or the studio,” he says.

From an early age, Brotherston never had any doubts that the theatre was his preferred medium of expression. Now he is one of the country’s most respected theatre and dance designers. Probably his finest hour was winning a prestigious Tony award in New York last year for his work on Swan Lake, the sexy, headline-grabbing, all-male subversion of the classic ballet produced by Adventures in Motion Pictures.

Ironically, in the wake of his Tony award, there was “a flurry of interest” from Hollywood, but nothing that really took his fancy. It was at the time when the musical Spend, Spend, Spend was at the planning stage and, as its designer, Brotherston was in great demand back home.

The show had just come off when I visited him in his flat in a converted school in London’s Bethnal Green. He proudly showed me a design memento – a beautiful scale model of a grey metal roofscape, used in the early scenes, evoking Viv Nicholson’s working class background.

Brotherston’s spacious, split-level flat also doubles as his studio and when I arrived it was a hive of activity, with three assistants at work on various projects. It’s amazing how a fistful of awards can transform a lone theatre designer into a thriving cottage industry. Top of his commitment list at present is The Car Man, the latest Amp show, which previews at London’s Old Vic from 4 September. This is a witty, inventive reworking of Carmen, relocating the operatic melodrama from 19th century Spain to middle America, circa 1960. In place of Bizet’s chorus of feisty factory girls is a bunch of musclebound grease monkeys, while the swarthy seductress has been usurped by a charismatic drifter (male) whose voracious sexual appetite is impervious to considerations of gender.

As with his highly charged Swan Lake, Amp director Matthew Bourne is ever keen to push back the boundaries when it comes to sexual licence, but I have to say that I saw The Car Man with a bunch of wrinklies in Woking and they seemed to be having a great time watching the simulated bonking, sweaty squabbling and ritualistic mating dances.

The reviews so far have applauded Brotherston’s designs. They are “so visceral”, according to The Guardian, “that you can almost feel the heat that has the dancers languid with sweat or twitching with sexual energy.”

“Matthew and I wanted it to have a late 1950s, sexy Italian feel to it, even though it’s set in middle America,” says Brotherston. “He is a film fanatic, so there are always umpteen cinematic references in his head when we plan a show.

“Matthew is very easy to work with. We never argue over the design. He doesn’t push me, he encourages me. I never feel I’ve got to prove myself. If the pressure is on, you tend to fall back on the things you know, whereas with Matt I can relax and go further than I would otherwise.

“A lot of the time it’s just me here on my own with my model box, mulling it over 24 hours a day, and I just show Matt the things I like. At that early stage, it feels like it’s completely mine. Then later you get into rehearsals and you have to hand it over to the director, it moves away from your ownership. You progress from that private cerebral investigation to the practicalities and technical problems. By the time you get to the first night, it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference if you didn’t even turn up.”

Running parallel with his work with Amp and Bourne has been an outstanding body of work for the Northern Ballet Theatre, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1998), Dracula (1996), The Brontës (1995) and A Christmas Carol (1992). Brotherston worked on all of these with NBT director Christopher Gable, whose premature death in 1998 clearly robbed him of a collaborator as stimulating and congenial as Bourne.

“When Gable first joined NBT in 1987 they were doing cheap, cut-down versions of the classics. He completely turned that around,” says Brotherston. “Now it’s narrative- and character-led. Its not a negation of what went before, it’s a development in a different direction. Something had to happen in ballet. If you’re not encouraging people to have a look at new works it will suffocate. You can’t keep churning out the same ten ballets again and again.

“Without Gable, the encouragement and time that he gave me, I probably wouldn’t be doing dance, and I wouldn’t have gone on to do the Amp shows. His contribution to narrative ballet has never been properly acknowledged. There has been a lot of resistance to narrative ballet by certain dance critics,” he adds.

When Brotherston started working with Amp, the company consisted of eight dancers and a minibus, touring special needs schools with a dance therapy programme, and doing two performances. Thanks to the success of Swan Lake, it’s now a £5m international operation, enjoying seasons in Los Angeles and New York, an extensive European tour (Swan Lake again) and a pre-London nationwide tour of The Car Man. It now rivals the Royal Ballet as the UK’s biggest and busiest dance company.

Next year, Amp will take up residence at one of London’s most historic theatres, the Old Vic, near Waterloo station, where its next show after The Car Man is expected to be a stage version of the film Edward Scissorhands.

This is in the very early stages of planning, as is another 2001 project Brotherston will co-direct with AMP star dancer Adam Cooper. Like a lot of theatre practitioners, Brotherston says he seldom goes to the theatre these days, partly because of the pressures of work and partly for fear of being disappointed by the quality of the set design. He says he is not interested in seeing what other designers are up to.

“It’s rare that you’re bowled over by something. If I’m sitting there thinking about the set it’s usually because the show isn’t very good. If something is really holding your attention, you shouldn’t even notice whether the designer has done a good job.” Having reached that stage of his professional life where young art college graduates are queueing up for work experience, what advice would he give to wannabe Lez Brotherstons?

“I get a lot of people wanting to tell me how they’d design Dr Faustus when all I want them to do is make a tiny scale model of a chair for a box set. The problem I find is that the art schools don’t really train people in model-making and technical drawing, which is how you get started as a theatre designer.

“If I’m paying someone from my producer’s budget, they need to be able to offer me some basic skills. I’m paid to do the designing. What I need is people who can back me up with the model-making, technical drawing and some basic communication skills. They can’t expect to become designers overnight. I had someone the other day who couldn’t even hold a scalpel blade properly. It’s not much to ask, is it?”

The Car Man by Adventures in Motion Pictures. Previews start on 4 September at the Old Vic, the Cut, London SE1. Bookings until 19 December

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