Sunday, June 5, 2011

All hail to the Magician

This excellent tribute to Tony Geddes was written by Elric Hooper for The Press June 3 2011

Late one afternoon, 30 years ago, an energetic, intense and obviously intelligent young man approached me in the foyer of The Court Theatre.

He had heard that our stage designer was off overseas on a scholarship and that the company might be in need of someone to design scenery.

The young man was a pupil of Rudi Gopas at the University of Canterbury, and had enjoyed some success as a painter, but was teaching art at a girls' school to make a living. This was not the usual theatrically ambitious nutter who sometimes accosts you in the street, but someone of quality, charisma - and the necessary amount of craziness.

I happened to have a script of Stephen Sondheim's musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, under my arm at the time. I gave it to him and said he should take it away, read it and come back and tell me what he would do if he were asked to design a set for it.

Only a few days later, he returned with a series of stunning coloured sketches of a lunacy that perfectly matched the comic anarchy of the Sondheim work.

I thought I would be mad not to use them in the projected production. It was a huge success.

A few months later, Tony Geddes became the resident scenic designer of the Court Theatre company.

In the 30 years that he held that position, he created a body of work so imaginative, so varied, so ambitious, and so practical that I contend it constitutes one of the major contributions to the visual arts, not just in Canterbury but in New Zealand.

His talent was acknowledged at the Prague Quadrennal of Theatre Design. Therefore, it is bewildering that, given the preservation of the exquisite models, the sketches visualising moments in the drama, and the almost Victorian copperplate precision of the working plans he created for each production, there has been no major exhibition of his work in this country.

His sets were created for the most difficult spaces, on meagre budgets and on a relentless timetable that only the demented or devoted could have survived.

Add this to all the stresses, politics and accidents that any artistic enterprise is heir to, and the Geddes achievement appears the greater.

The shape and cubic content of the old Court Theatre stage were a designer's nightmare. It was two (actor) Stuart Devenies high, three prostrate sopranos deep and as wide as a cricket pitch is long.

However, Tony approached these constraints as a poet might approach the strictures of the sonnet. In this narrow space, he created hundreds of sets, ranging from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Cole Porter, Kander, Ebb, Roger Hall and Michaelanne Forster. His sets were, for the most part, very practical, although I remember a near pirate mutiny when, because of the extreme shallowness of the stage, actors had to go on all fours to make an entry up on the deck of the ravishing set for Treasure Island. ) Over these 30 years his invention never seemed to slacken. Indeed, some of his most imaginative and lovely sets, like those for Heroes and The Seagull , appeared in the last year or so.
All this could not have been achieved without his unique combination of intellect, literacy, humour and yachting skills. Covered in paint, he would sit at lunch in the green room, reading the Times Literary Supplement.

Without the skills learnt from messing about in boats, the rigging of all those rings and strings that raised and lowered curtains, where there was no other flying space, would not have been possible.

It was a rare match of creative impulse and practical skills. It was the yin of the artist and yang of the mechanic.

Geddes' talents as a painter saved the theatre a fortune. He could disguise rags as velvet and chipboard as Versailles. He was always budget conscious and never pulled that old trick of overspending for art's sake - well, mostly.

He was the ideal collaborator in that, through his intelligence and learning, he could quickly assimilate a director's concept, and then with boyish enthusiasm extend it. He could be feisty and hold out for his ideals, but co-operation was his usual method of getting his own way.

Now that Geddes leaves The Court Theatre company, what remains are the memory and wonder of the sheer range, beauty, ingeniousness and integrity of the scenic work he created over 30 years. It is a great artistic achievement.

* Stop press. Tony Geddes will continue his association with the court as a freelance designer when the theatre reopens later this year.

Elric Hooper is a former artistic director of The Court Theatre.

- The Press

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