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SPOTLIGHT: Paul Wills sets the scene at the Fugard Theatre

Barbara Loots


All who love theatre in Cape Town should know the name, Paul Wills, the word-class set designer for the Fugard Theatre presented A Human Being Died That Night, and the re-imagined King Kong the Musical. Now his scenic design is set to also gift audiences with some surprises in Shakespeare in Love, currently on stage at the Fugard Theatre.

As Wills is London based and Theatre Scene Cape Town happened to be sampling some theatre there in September, a lovely train trip to Chichester to chat to Wills about his creative vision was a must. At that time he was busy envisioning another amazing set design at the Minerva Theatre – this time for the Jonathan Munby directed King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen. Stealing a few minutes from his schedule for a quick theatre chat was a great treat.

Listening to him share his passion for theatre – not only his own projects, but also productions and works by other designers – his enthusiasm is contagious. Wills is someone who truly loves what he does, but almost didn’t live that passion. His entrance into the theatre world is serendipitous: “I had a spot to do international law and history”, he tells. "Then at the very last minute I decided to change my place at University and found a single spot left in a course to study theatre design, and I took it. I don’t know why, but something drove me to make that shift.” If one needs an example of a fated event, this would be it.

After that followed his big design break-out with Battina and The Moon at the Sheffield studio, and so the scene was set for Wills to live theatre as a lifestyle. Something he does with great respect, humility and appreciation for the craft in all its forms, because it allows him to feed his creativity and constantly find inspiration in new places and people.

“As I am always moving from one project to another, with a whole new team of artists with different visions, it is all about collaboration and what they bring into my life. That just continuously informs your relationship with the work and the world. I think the nomadic nature of the business, moving between theatres and countries (going to South Africa), allows for your friend and family base to shift a lot and you suddenly form new families and new friends. That lifestyle is kind of thrilling in a way. I took a lot from Cape Town. There is a real energy in the theatre there – the experience was great. I know Jonathan and I came back from Cape Town inspired and buzzed out, which definitely has come into our next production [King Lear].”

He professes that a big part of that excitement was linked to his experience at the Fugard Theatre and the theatre family and friends he found in the team there. As a theatre, he regards it as on par with the West End standard in the way it operates: properly balancing both the business (marketing) end and the creative production side of what makes a world-class theatre, like the Fugard, a success. "I think that's why I really enjoyed working at the Fugard, because it feels very much like a UK theatre in the way it is set-up: its ideals and what its striving to achieve is very much like a London theatre. It is great to walk in and sense that confidence and a belief in a project, including the creative side of it."

Wills however notes that two things have surprised him about our industry during his time working on South African projects. Firstly, he spoke of the fact that designers seem to be a scarce commodity in South Africa. In response to this comment, I confess there was a lot of nodding in agreement, as our industry has revealed a trend to undervalue the worth of local designers, with budget cuts usually seeing the set and lighting visionaries suffering the most. However, design skills must be properly respected, developed, and supported if SA theatre is to grow to reach its full potential.

In reaction to this point of debate, Wills professes himself saddened, “because I find that Cape Town is such a creative, inspiring place. Working in the UK, you can always be in touch with other creatives to share ideas, but I feel in Cape Town those visual scenic designers (or scenographers) are limited... making it a challenge for me to tap into a network. That might just be me not knowing that that network exists? In the UK, I get maybe a letter a week from someone wanting to get into design, yet finding associates in Cape Town was very difficult for both shows.” Luckily, with the great support of the Fugard team who acknowledges the production-value design elements add to every show, “in the end, we found a guy called Chris [Pienaar as Associate Set Designer]. He is totally brilliant and I think is going to be a great designer."

Secondly, Wills was impressed by how willing every person on the Fugard team was to wear more than one hat to get a production up and running, in comparison to the London theatre scene, where everyone has “a single role on which you can focus and execute perfectly". Even though the Fugard team juggles many balls at once (while never dropping one or their standard of excellence), Wills ponders that this multi-tasking approach to which the West End is not accustomed is possibly a praiseworthy reaction to a still growing industry, as the Cape Town theatre scene is small in comparison to the West End. True, again a lot of nodding in agreement. The UK does have a bit of a head-start on us with their first theatre opening in 1576, but we don’t shy away from taking on challenges. Cape Town theatres and their tenacity will still see the Mother City become the West End of South Africa (if not Africa), or so I dream. In this, as Wills clearly also experienced it, the Fugard is leading the way by example.

Along with all these philosophical musings (which when theatre lovers get talking allows one to digress into the theoretical more than the theatrical very easily), we also got to talk about the inspiration behind beautiful sets audiences get to see on stage.

The re-imagined King Kong The Musical, a set design for which Wills has received much praise, was no easy creative task, with the expectation and nostalgia associated with this revival (in the absence of a clear historic blue print) being ever present. "First thing is, we had Jonathan Munby directing it, who is a brilliant visionary as a director”, Wills shares. “I knew from the outset that he didn't want to echo the original production; he wanted it to feel fresh and new. I also knew – being an outsider with no South African routes – that I didn't want to try to create a realistic Sophiatown landscape. Actually, for us [as designers] it is uninteresting to try to create reality on stage, or realism within the design. So, we abstracted it. We created a landscape that felt fresh and more architectural than the original – not consciously different to the original, but just our artistic take. The way Jonathan re-imagined the production (through the eyes of a contemporary set of four kids) allowed us to be a bit freer with the design. The original design concept was beautiful, with painted backdrops, but we wanted to go with something that was harder, more textural, and here and now - more playful, with levels to really use the height of the Fugard, to get those three levels up there and to open it up as much as possible to get wing space."

A set that cleverly lends itself to sleek scene changes and surprise reveals, as those who will be booking their King Kong tickets to see its Cape Town return run in December will see. Reacting to that comment, Wills explains: "I think obvious scene changes over here [in the UK], and over there [in SA], are frowned upon. Going to a blackout between scenes is really a no-no. I was keen to keep that fluidity, and Jonathan wanted a world that had magic boxes and hidden surprises where the ghosts of the past could reveal themselves."

Having impressed Cape Town audiences greatly with his King Kong scenic design, the expectation levels for what awaits with his Shakespeare in Love set are high, and I do profess myself personally very intrigued to see this play of comedy, love and (naturally) errors. From what Wills reveals – without giving too much away – audiences are not going to be disappointed.

"Because Greg [Karvellas] is a very young, exciting director, I think we both knew very early on that we didn't want to do anything that felt too Shakespearean and old fashioned. And if there was a way of presenting it with a slightly more contemporary edge, but still feeling Shakespearean, that would be the challenge. I think again we tried to utilise the best qualities of the Fugard, which is the height and width, and created something as simple as possible to allow the scene changes for the team – choreography – to be as fluid as possible. It is all actor driven with space for [‘sword’ fighting] and all that, because it’s a big company. So, a really simple design that I guess draws on the simplicity of Shakespearean theatre, but also hopefully feels quite modern.”

Modern with that sense of King Kong textural approach then? “That’s a good question", Will pauses. "Maybe it isn’t modern? Well, hang on, I think what I didn’t want it to do is feel heavy in that space. And a lot of Shakespearean imagery is very heavy: dark wood, lots of layers, and textures. I guess what I mean when I say it’s contemporary is it’s just kind of stripping it back, simplifying it, so the details aren’t so heavily Elizabethan. I wanted something that felt a bit more poetic than a straight forward reconstruction of a theatre. Also, it is really rare that I would ever put anything on stage that doesn’t have a reason to be there. There is never anything that is too scenic or fluffy."

Added to that, one must not forget Shakespeare in Love is not a story penned by the Bard, but rather a nod to him, so “not Shakespeare, but rather a modern tale [about him]. And I guess what I always do as a designer is I never try and be noticed on stage. So, trying to create something that’s simple and pushes the actors and the text to the forefront of a piece has been my objective. I love the comments about King Kong, but actually it would have been nice to not have been noticed. The aim was to create a canvas for the characters. I think with Shakespeare in Love we’ve done that, we’ve stripped it back so that the key is costume and actor and story – that’s the main driving force of my design process for every set that I’ve done.”

Simply reflecting on all the sets to date designed by Wills for the Fugard (and others, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet), one sees that very vision in his design: the balance between the aesthetically pleasing and the narrative-driven supportive necessity, inviting the actors and “the lighting designer to breathe life into” the set, so that it “actually becomes something more… The cages in A Human Being Died That Night would have been nothing without the beautiful light design of Tim [Mitchell] through it" Wills declares, "and King Kong would have just been a heavy wooden set, but the way he lights it through the metal gives it another depth.”

Listening to Wills reveal his very respectful approach to the setting of a scene (ever aware that all design elements, not just the set, must come together to reflect a collaborative vision), he truly understand that part of the magic of theatre lies in designing an experience that allows the audience to be surprised.

So book your tickets to see Shakespeare in Love today at Computicket, before run ends 19 November 2017, and go experience the magic Wills, along with rest of the cast and crew, has brought to the scene to compliment all aspects of the current Fugard Theatre production.


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