Watching Constellations, Nick Payne’s delicate exploration of love and the multiverse, I struggled to keep my eyes off the balloons. Like a birthday party run riot, Tom Scutt’s design was full of the things – white, weightless, hovering above the stage. Throughout the show, these floating objects spoke continually to Payne’s themes, lightly hinting at atoms, at possibilities, at easily punctured hope. In a similar way, 13 was refracted through the huge black box that dominated the stage of the Olivier, its nightmarish presence suggesting everything that was so disquieting about Mike Bartlett’s vision.
“It’s just a black box; it’s just a load of white balloons,” Scutt says when we chat in the Royal Court bar, acknowledging the simplicity of these designs with a smile. He goes on to describe his design for The Djinns of Eidgah, currently running in the Court’s upstairs theatre, as “just a load of string”. This simplicity, however, often contains within it great complexity. While Scutt’s portfolio features an impressive range of work – from the minutely detailed pub of The Weir to the magical landscape of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it can usually be characterised by an intellectual depth that belies its surface charm.
When I suggest that the deceptive minimalism of the sets for Constellations and 13 is what makes them work, Scutt nods, but jumps in to qualify the uncluttered clarity of these concepts. “You can tell when simplicity is simplicity because of ease and when simplicity is simplicity because of something that is constantly feeding the audience,” he explains carefully. For Scutt, design is always about feeding the audience, about offering them something beyond a straightforward setting for dramatic action.
As in Constellations and 13, Scutt’s designs have a habit of excavating something within the plays they contain. This is perhaps a result of Scutt’s process, which tends to involve more reading and writing than it does drawing – a “dirty confession” for a designer. “I can’t really design unless dramaturgically I know what’s going on,” Scutt tells me, revealing that his process is “very argy-bargy with other people’s roles in the team”. While he shies away from the term “collaborative”, which he feels is over-used, Scutt is keen to dissolve some of the misleading distinctions between creative roles, explaining that “it’s a completely fluid affair when I’m working with a director”. When he first worked with Natalie Abrahami, for example, she brought in a set of storyboards, while he arrived armed with a heavily annotated script.
Scutt’s way of working, which he describes as a “really rigorous process of elimination of ideas”, also means that the design often takes shape relatively late into the process. But when it does finally fall into place, he knows that it’s right: “I don’t know what anything is going to look like for so long, and then suddenly it just lands and it makes sense.” Despite the dramaturgical rigour of his process, however, the designs that Scutt has been most satisfied with have all been born from instinctive ideas that “won’t fuck off”. “It’s intuitive,” he says, “the gut just goes ‘this is right’.”
This was certainly the case with 13, which was “there all the time; I just couldn’t get it out of my head”. The monolithic revolving cube was “tonally right” for the play, Scutt explains, rather than drawing on one particular theme. The image of the box represented “science and religion in one, it was Pandora’s Box, it was nightmares, it was an alarm clock, it was an iPhone and a laptop, a black hole that you stare into, it was 2001 Space Odyssey, it was the blue box in Mulholland Drive”. A similarly multi-layered collage of ideas informed the design for Constellations, which alluded to “synapses in the brain and atoms and sperm and weddings and parties”, while at the same time combining great beauty and profundity with something “shit and basic and sort of mundane”. In both instances, the design seized on something in the metabolism of the play without taking any literal inspiration from the text.
Although these conceptual designs might be some of the most rewarding, they are also some of the hardest – “it always scares the bejeezus out of me,” Scutt laughs. “It’s what Carrie Cracknell would call hard good,” he continues. “It’s really satisfying, it’s really crunchy and you really have to get your head round it.” But, for all his enthusiasm for the minimal and conceptual, Scutt also makes a vital clarification about his more realistic designs. “When I do a ‘naturalistic’ design, or a perceived naturalistic design, it’s actually not at all,” he says, expressing frustration at readings of his work which underestimate the work being done just below the surface. Whether it is the wild, playful quality of the taxidermy that cluttered No Quarter in the upstairs space at the Royal Court, or the fractured, schizophrenic tone of his design for Cracknell’s production of Wozzeck for the ENO, there is always more to Scutt’s designs than immediately meets the eye.
“There’s way more thought that goes into these things than people understand,” Scutt says, referring as much to other designers as to himself. We discuss Ian MacNeil’s hauntingly elegant designs for A Doll’s House and Desire Under the Elms, while I later think of the seemingly stripped backed simplicity of Chloe Lamford’s set for The Events and the amount of work it is quietly doing in that piece. Scutt suggests that the nature of the theatre culture in this country means that some audiences – and particularly some critics – are not “visually astute”, and that the expectations of naturalism often lead to a misreading of ostensibly realistic designs. “If someone sees a chair, they go ‘ah, I know where I am’, and so they quantify it in terms that they can relate to,” he explains.
As well as falling foul of misunderstandings about how design enters into dialogue with a show, Scutt thinks that designers suffer from a rigid and often inaccurate distribution of creative roles by critics and commentators. This is highlighted particularly by awards, which sharply divide recognition into job titles – something with which Scutt and the whole creative team felt uncomfortable when Constellations was showered with nominations. “We all felt really weird that anybody could be split up in that way,” he remembers. “We made a thing; it wasn’t a play with a design, it wasn’t something that you could just whack on stage and it just happens that everything else is really nice. It was a thing, and it’s only what it is because of all the tiny little things that come together in a weirdly relevant way.”
Scutt’s suggested solution, as well as demystifying the roles of various different individuals in the theatremaking process, is to break down perceived hierarchies of creation. “We should all be as unimportant as each other,” he says, grinning at this idea. “I think that’s when it’s really exciting, because everyone’s opinion is valid and nobody’s opinion is wrong.”
This goes some way towards explaining Scutt’s latest challenge. He has recently been announced as one of the associates joining new artistic director Sam Hodges at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton – a rare instance of a designer being offered a position of this nature. As part of a team that includes playwright Adam Brace and directors Blanche McIntyre, Natalie Abrahami and Michael Longhurst, Scutt will be offered an equal hand in decision making, marking a move away from the traditional division of roles.
“It feels like a really healthy and interesting step for me to be involved in decisions when it comes to programming and casting and the building, rather than just necessarily the designs,” Scutt says, adding that he is embracing the experience as a chance to learn and evolve as an artist. One of his first projects will be a reunion with Constellations director Longhurst to work on a new version of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, which is due to open in February.
The structure of a building and Hodges’ flexible approach to creative roles, meanwhile, might offer Scutt the space to continue following his gut. Because when design works best, Scutt suggests, it comes from instinct rather than intellect. “That’s how I feel design should work, that it works intuitively,” he reflects. “You don’t have to justify it; it just sort of happens.”
Main image: Asia Werbel.