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Evoking the Past Through a Modern Lens
By RAVEN SNOOK
Tuesday, October 25, 2016  •  
Tue Oct 25, 2016  •  
Design  •   0 comments Share This
"I watched the John Malkovich film for the first time and sort of went, 'This is going to be a hard act to follow!'"

Designer Tom Scutt tackles his first period piece with Broadway's Les Liaisons Dangereuses

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Set and costume designer Tom Scutt has an enviable resume, which is even more impressive when you consider his young age. At just 33, he's already racked up a Tony nomination (for last season's King Charles III); worked with a slew of major theatre companies in his native U.K. (The National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Almeida, to name a handful); was recently appointed as an associate artist at the lauded Donmar Warehouse; and served as the production designer for the MTV Video Music Awards -- twice.

And yet devising the set and costumes for Donmar's revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses -- which originated in London and is now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre -- presented a novel challenge. Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel about sex, love, manipulation, and revenge among the French aristocracy is the first true period piece he has ever worked on.

"Josie [Rourke, Donmar's artistic director who also helms Liaisons] and I decided to do this production in period quite early on," Scutt says. "I watched the John Malkovich film for the first time and sort of went, 'Oh shit, this is going to be a hard act to follow!' It was a daunting prospect. This isn't normally the ground I cover in my work," which is often abstract, like the evocative balloons in Constellations. "But I suppose the beauty of a freelance life are the different challenges. I relished the opportunity to develop this world which, although it's recognizable and familiar from the film, does bring something new to the story. I think our version has a sinister edge, a forbidding darkness and a sensuality with the candlelight that perhaps counteracts the full, crystalline brightness of the movie."

The set as the audience filters in
The set as the audience filters in

Liaisons takes place at a very specific time, just before the French Revolution upended the country's societal structure. So Scutt employed a research team to help with period accuracy for props and costumes. Yet he didn't completely relinquish his usual design method, which he describes as "working on gut instinct, emotion, and feeling."

"You don't want to be doing a show like this and someone looks at the stage and goes, 'That is definitely 100 years out!'" he says. "But although the box we're in is smaller, we can still rattle around in it. So my approach, although naturalistic, has been slightly abstract in that the set is littered with frames. Sometimes they're literal, like large picture frames; other times they're subtler. There are lots of rectangles all over the space that repeat and repeat and repeat in order to constantly frame the actors. You're always aware these are almost living paintings."

That impression of the set seeming like a kind of art gallery is bolstered by the way the space changes before the audience's eyes. "When you enter, there are plastic sheets covering up old pieces of art and furniture as if relics from the past," Scutt says. "When the show begins, the florescent lights fly out and the chandeliers descend, the plastic sheets fly off, and the ghosts are summoned into the space. That doesn't mean we're looking at the show as a historical reenactment; it feels like these people are invading our world and our time. It stops it from feeling like a conventional costume drama; it's quite alive and present."

The transformed set, just before the actors enter
The transformed set, just before the actors enter

Although the Donmar has a much smaller seating capacity than the Booth Theatre (250 versus 760 or so), Scutt lucked out in that his original design fits well into the new venue. "It's been pretty seamless," he says. "The Donmar is more intimate, but its stage is quite expansive. What's lovely here in New York is that your auditoria are generally wider, so the scope the audience has to look at is wider. It feels like the set really kind of opens up warmly into the space. We light the show with candlelight, so we've done a lot of work in terms of pushing the lighting out into the space more, trying to convey that intimacy, drawing the audience into the show. My main job this time around was figuring out how we could set up these wonderful stage pictures for a larger house."

While the cast of the New York run is almost completely new (Tony winner Janet McTeer is the sole holdover from London), Scutt didn't need to overhaul the costume designs, either. "There's little that's changed from the original dress Janet wore the first time around and, by and large, we've recreated the same looks with the new cast members," he says. "The original look of this show has been maintained, which is a really lovely feeling. The period is so constrained; it's a specific look. You don't want it to feel over-costumed or over-designed. You're making a painting: the composition has to come together and the color palette has to fit."

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Follow Raven Snook at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Joan Marcus. Top image: Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber.

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