On and off stage
Oscar Wilde’s immortal tale of The Happy Prince has become a significant part of my career’s trajectory since 1992. As the founder and Artistic Director of Theatre of Image The Happy Prince was suggested to me as a potential theatre piece by my partner, Neil Hunt. It became our second production, adapted by myself and writer Richard Tulloch, which I directed and designed in collaboration with Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.
Wilde’s timeless tale of The Prince and The Little Swallow is a story of love and sacrifice, tenderness and joy which engages both adults and children on different levels. Adults cry – and children wonder why. It sparks healthy intergenerational discussion in theatre foyers and the car trips home. This The Happy Prince had the chance to grow and develop as it remained in our repertoire for 16 years, collecting many awards with national and international tours and three long Sydney seasons.
Wilde’s The Happy Prince was written for his two sons while he was in prison. Its longevity is, I believe, a testament to the many layers of emotional and social observations that are as relevant now as when it was written in 1888. In particular, the disparity between the rich and the poor, further emphasised by the COVID19 pandemic in our current world.
In December 2015, with the encouragement of choreographer Graeme Murphy, I pitched 10 stories all with a common theme of romance and fantasy to David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and Nicolette Fraillon, Musical Director at a café next door to The Capitol Theatre in Sydney, where Graeme’s iconic version of Swan Lake was performing.
It was then I realised that The Australian Ballet saw themselves – not in a national, but international context. So any story I suggested that had been done – or was about to done – by any other of the world’s top ballet companies – got the flick.
Number ten was The Happy Prince. The story resonated and eventually all agreed and the deal was done.
Our ballet of The Happy Prince in real life has been a journey of love and sacrifice with several unpredictable stops and starts along the way. After Graeme and I presented the concept, model and costume designs to the executive team came the first delay. Over-budget! Refreshingly, they did not want to change it. So it was rescheduled to the following year.
The second set-back came just before rehearsals were about to commence, when Graeme became seriously ill and was hospitalised – and I too, was battling a serious illness. Strangely, this delay was a blessing as the show was not ready in way shape or form. Both of us are fully recovered and the show opened at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in late February this year to great excitement and success.
Then came the pandemic. And The Arts Centre Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House seasons have both been cancelled, with a future unknown at this stage.
The creative journey
My agreement with Graeme was that our version of The Happy Prince would not in any way resemble the original Theatre of Image show. So, as adapter and designer, this was my first challenge. Inspiration took hold during a stay at a guesthouse in Bowral NSW. Due to days of incessant rain and mud, I was cooped up inside by the fireside where a high mantelpiece displayed several tomes of Winston Churchill’s diaries. Dipping in and out of these set me off into London 1945 – the end of the war where the unveiling of a beautiful golden statue would gain more dramatic gravitas as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.
The concept flowed from there. For instance, The Swallows were no longer flying south to Egypt for the summer, but DownUnder to Australia. Graeme and his creative muse, Janet Vernon, loved it and we entered into a highly-enjoyable creative collaboration.
I have worked with many choreographers and contemporary dancers, circus and physical performers. But I had not designed a ballet before. The Theatre of Image cast consisted of five actors and puppeteers. The ballet had a cast of 55 dancers – and there was still a lot of doubling of parts.
At The Australian Ballet principal roles have four dancers per character. So, suddenly, you realise where the budget goes – in duplication, as well as duplication of set pieces for the tiny Sydney Opera House stage.
No puppets in this one – but aerial – as the swallow dancer had to fly. This required a one-week special workshop at The Australian Ballet’s fantastic Altona storage and workshop resources, headed up by a big man called Tiny and his dextrous technical flying team.
The ambitious flying sequences were integral to the story – but complicated rehearsal and production week – however, it was magical. An early rehearsal period at Sydney Opera House sketched out crucial scenes on the floor with composer Christopher Gordon (films include Master And Commander and most of Bruce Beresford’s films) and lighting designer Damien Cooper contributing.
The final day was a show-&-tell we videoed – which provided a valuable blueprint to ponder over during the Christmas break.
A full cast costume parade was held two weeks before the final 4-week rehearsal period in Melbourne. Fifty-five dancers milling around a rehearsal room in an eclectic assortment of brightly-coloured stylised costumes looked like fruit salad. As designer, you know it’s your moment to take control as you are the only one who holds all the information.
As with most big companies, time is of the essence and you get one go at this.
Back at the airport, me and Graeme and Janet recovered over double-brandies and chips.
The Australian Ballet wardrobe team are highly-skilled and well-organised, with high production values. Outside specialists were brought in for headwear and highly-structured costumes.
The costume designs on paper suggested a very graphic quality which was interpreted through digital prints which were done in Melbourne and London. Otherwise, all other costumes received paint treatment at The Australian Ballet’s art department.
The sets and props
The making of the sets and props was put out to tender through a very detailed document and references. Six companies from around the country participated. I did a one-day presentation for them via the model and drawings a year before the build was to begin. The set and large props became divided up between Melbourne Show Works (mostly big commercial musicals) and Opera Australia.
Scenic art was done by Scenic Studios in Melbourne and Opera Australia in Sydney.
The cloths were painted by Scenographic Studios. The Happy Prince was the last show they did before closing down.
The coordination of all these disparate organisations – to realise a singular vision – was another challenge. What was wonderful was the opportunity to see the whole series of sets erected for display in the Altona facility before being packed for Brisbane.
The show looked as envisaged in The Lyric Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. All the elements fused together over the week-&-a-half before the season opened – sets, digital animation, aerial, orchestra and two casts. The final dress rehearsal was – as is so often the case – truly appalling. Everything went wrong. But a miracle gave us a triumphant opening night to be remembered.
The Happy Prince Exhibition
Since March this year I have immersed myself in my art – creating a series of 26 works influenced by the combination of Oscar’s story and The Happy Prince ballet. These go on show 13-25 October at The ARO Gallery in William St Sydney – around the corner from The Australian Museum. A virtual gallery will be available for those who can’t come.
31 August 2020