MILESAGO – People
Brian Thomson is Australia's most acclaimed stage designer. Born and educated in Sydney, he studied architecture at UNSW in the late Sixties, and was part of a close circle of friends that included several other architecture students who would become important and influential people in the Australian arts: director Jim Sharman, producer Matt Carroll and artist Peter Kingston.
Brian is internationally renowned as one of the world’s leading designers of plays and musicals, opera, film, television mini-series, rock videos, events and exhibitions. … the 1969 Australian production of Hair,
In 1971-72 he designed the original London and Australian productions of the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar. His stark and striking design for the Australian stage production set new standards for Australian musical theatre. It consisted of only three elements. The first consisted of a number of long, transparent plastic vinyl tubes which could be raised or lowered from above the stage; these were used in the overture and in the death of Judas. The second element consisted of several long elevated walkways fabricated from tubular steel and painted silver; these were of various lengths and transected the space above the stage at various angles and heights.
The centerpiece of his design, an hydraulically articulated dodecahedron, and nothing quite like it had been seen on the Australian stage before -- although it had a distant ancestor in the prop Brian designed for the 1967 Architecture Ball, starring The Masters Apprentices. This was a giant dice in which the band were wheeled out into the hall, hidden inside, at which point it exploded open and the band jumped out and began playing.
The dodecahedron shape was both symbolic, and a striking sculptural form, but it was also a brilliant piece of multi-functional stage design which was used in many ways throughout the show. Structurally, the top half of the dodecahedron was made as a single piece, effectively making it a lid which could be raised and lowered into place on top of the bottom half on a cable. The bottom half was a masterpiece of ingenuity. Each of the five “leaves” of the bottom half could be individually raised or lowered hydraulically, opening up like a flower or closing to become a cup, and each leaf could be used as a ramp or an elevated platform. The floor panel had a concealed hydraulic lift in the centre, which dropped through the stage floor; this enabled cast members to enter the dodecahedron without being seen when the leaves were raised. Finally, the entire apparatus was mounted on a turntable which could be rotated through 360 degrees in either direction. The inside of the dodecahedron was covered in a neutrally coloured fabric to provide non-skid surface for the performers; the outside was painted silver to reflect the lighting and projections.
The dodecahedron shape was no doubt inspired in part by Brian’s architectural studies, but the object was also eminently appropriate for the show, being rich in symbolism. The dodecahedron is a “Platonic solid” composed of 12 pentagonal faces. The Platonic solids, also called the regular solids or regular polyhedra, are convex polyhedra with equivalent faces composed of congruent, convex regular polygons with equal sides and equal angles. There are exactly five such solids: the cube, dodecahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, and tetrahedron, as was proved by Euclid in the last proposition of the Elements. The Platonic solids are sometimes also called "cosmic figures".
The Platonic solids were known to the ancient Greeks, and were described by Plato in his Timaeus ca. 350 BC. Plato equated these polyhedra with the Greek elements: the tetrahedron with fire, the cube with earth, the icosahedron with water, the octahedron with air. Plato assigned the dodecahedron the role of "the fifth construction, which the god used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven". In 1596 Johannes Kepler published a tract called The Cosmic Mystery in which he envisioned the universe as consisting of nested Platonic Solids whose inscribed spheres determine the orbits of the planets, all enclosed in a sphere representing the outer heaven.
The dodecahedron is representative of the universe, and number of faces also alludes to the twelve of disciples of Jesus, the twelve months of the year and the twelve houses of the zodiac. In addition the twelve faces of the dodecahedron are pentagons. The pentagon is the polygon that contains the golden ratio, strengthening the association this figure has with the cosmos, and joining the vertices of a pentagon can also trace out the pentagram or pentangle.
Interestingly, the dodecahedron was one of several shapes considered by Stanley Kubrick when designing the alien artifact for his film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The other was an octahedron, and several octahedral objects do appear in one scene in the “Stargate” sequence near the end of the film. Ultimately though, Kubrick rejected both designs and settled on the now-famous rectangular monolith.
His next major design was for the original London production of The Rocky Horror Show (as well as productions in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Tokyo and touring productions in the UK, USA, Australia and Japan). Other musicals include Chicago, The Stripper (which he also directed), Company, Chess and Falsettos, Barry Humphries' Housewife, Superstar!!! in London and New York, Steel City (opening season Sydney Star City Casino, 1998 Australian Tour, 1999 Radio City Music Hall), and Happy Days, the Arena Mega Musical.
For producer John Frost and The Adelaide Festival Centre he designed the award-winning settings for the acclaimed revival of The King and I and in 2000 for London's West End (for which he was awarded a 1992 Victorian Green Award), How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, South Pacific, Hello, Dolly! and Grease - the arena spectacular.
As a production designer for film and television his credits include SHIRLEY THOMPSON VS THE ALIENS (1972), directed by Jim Sharman and produced by Matt Carroll, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) again with Sharman, STARSTRUCK, REBEL', 'GROUND ZERO', 'TURTLE BEACH' and 'FRAUDS'. He designed and directed the short feature NIGHT OF SHADOWS and received the AFI Best Production Design Awards for REBEL and GROUND ZERO. For television, Brian designed the mini-series HILLS END', SHADOW OF THE COBRA (the miniseries based on Richard Neville’s book about serial killer Charles Sobraj) and BARLOW AND CHAMBERS: A LONG WAY FROM HOME.
Opera designs include Death in Venice and The Makropulos Affair for the State Opera of South Australia, Love Burns for the Seymour Group, Aida and Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll for Victorian State Opera, Voss, Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll, Death In Venice, Tristan und Isolde, Katya Kabanova and The Eighth Wonder for the Australian Opera and Billy Budd for the Australian Opera/Welsh National Opera. Brian has designed settings for more productions in the Sydney Opera House than any other designer, and has designed numerous productions for the Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir Street Theatre.
Brian has also designed rock videos for Mental As Anything, The Hoodoo Gurus and Apollonia 6 (a long form video produced by Prince which Brian directed, designed and co-wrote), designed the controversial Bicentenary Birthday Cake and directed and designed the 1991 Australian Film Awards presentation. He also designed Kylie Minogue’s 1998 Australian / UK Tour) Kylie Minogue - Intimate and Live concert. He was supervising designer for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing Ceremony (which used the famous dodecahedron he originally designed for the Sydney production of Superstar) and also designed the medal podiums and was production designer for the 2001 Centenary of Federation ceremony.
Among his numerous awards Brian has received the 1989, 1992, 1993 and 1994 Sydney Theatre Critics Circle Awards as Best Designer and the 1994 and 1995 Mo Awards for his Contribution to Musical Theatre. In 1996 he earned Broadway's highest honours for his scenic designs for the acclaimed Broadway revivial of The King and I, winning the 1996 Outer Critic Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award and the 1996 Tony Award.
His many stage and screen credits include:
The Rocky Horror Show (1975)
Housewife Superstar!!! (1977)
SHIRLEY THOMPSON VS THE ALIENS (1972)
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
NIGHT OF SHADOWS
SHADOW OF THE COBRA
BARLOW AND CHAMBERS: A LONG WAY FROM HOME.
State Opera of South Australia
Death in Venice
The Makropulos Affair
Victorian State Opera
Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll
Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll
Death In Venice
Tristan und Isolde
The Eighth Wonder
Opera/Welsh National Opera
Jesus Christ Superstar
The Rocky Horror Show (original production)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1972)
Rocky Horror Show (1974)
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Opera of South
Death in Venice
The Makropulos Affair
The White Devil
After the Ball
A Cheery Soul
The Doll Trilogy
The Ham Funeral
Death and the Maiden
Six Degrees of Separation
Third World Blues
Company B Belvoir
Suddenly Last Summer
The Master Builder
Up The Road
State Theatre Company SA
Shepherd On The Rocks
Armfield and Thomson have worked together often, though this is their first "Sweeney Todd.'' Armfield's credits include opera productions as well as theater. Thomson designed the original London productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar'' and Jim Sharman's "The Rocky Horror Show.'' (He also designed the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" film.) His opera credits range from Australia to Canada.
When creating theater productions, said Thomson, he and Armfield usually work out the overall staging during a long rehearsal period with the actors. That's a luxury that opera companies, with their repertoire schedule, can't offer. Every summer Lyric holds technical rehearsals for each production. The goal is to get major decisions about lighting and stage movement nailed down long before the singers arrive for a few weeks of rehearsal before their respective opening nights.
"It's a different approach technically to the way we get things done,'' said Thomson. "We did a summer tech [with "Sweeney''] where we put the set up and were meant to do the lighting. Given the way Neil works--in a close relationship between him, the work and the performers--a lot of what we were trying to achieve couldn't be done then.''
Luckily, Armfield's signature is stripping a play or opera down to its bare essentials, said Thomson. Lyric's "Sweeney'' will be set in an enclosed, prisonlike space.
"We aim for a great simplification of design elements,'' said Thomson. "It's much more a matter of creating spaces than creating decorative, illustrative sets. We begin with the idea that a bare stage is a pretty good place to start, and we only put onto the stage things that are completely required. In an opera, we allow the music to actually set the place for the audience. Unlike cinema, where you expect the whole thing to be laid out for you, on the stage the audience is pretty good at imagining what this [particular] world might be like.''
REFERENCES / LINKS
The King And I official website – Brian Thomson bio
Sweeney Todd review – Chicago Sun-Times, November 17, 2002
research – MathWorld