Stage set for Dick Bird's take on The Mikado
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by Margaret Chrystall
INTERNATIONAL stage designer Dick Bird admits when Kate Bush came on the phone to ask him to work on her show two years ago, his 13-year-old self would have been over the moon.
Dick – who won an award for his designs for the stage version of The Hudsucker Proxy last year – has currently been cross-fertilising the two worlds of Victorian music hall and high Japanese art in his designs for Scottish Opera’s The Mikado, coming to Eden Court on Wednesday.
His designs are always playful, magical and often wrongfoot his audience with clever perspective.
He said: "It’s been weird I was in Japan two weeks ago, this very real Japan working on a project there – and now I’m have come to this totally artificial Japan for Scottish Opera!"
Though Dick became a stage designer late – at 35 – he’d been picking up the skills and education from childhood which have made him a much-in-demand designer for theatre, opera and ballet for the past 17 years.
As well as working for the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he created the look for Aladdin for Birmingham Royal Ballet, worked for France’s national thaetre company the Comedie Francaise and created the filing cabinets on the backs of lorries for The Hudsucker Proxy which won the UK Theatre Awards Best Design in 2015. Dick also regularly works with three ballet companies in Japan – a country and culture that he loves.
But being invited to work on Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn 22 shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014 was a first.
He said: "I haven’t done rock n roll before and it was the most extraordinary 18 months of my life.
"In a way, it started very unusually for me because she started by assembling a team like the Magnificent Seven – slowly putting together a team of reprobates and drunks and knocking them back into shape till they are a fine fighting crew!" laughs Dick.
"That is sort of what Kate did, slowly assembling this fascinating team, but she wanted everything to be completely original.
"So we did a lot of workshopping. We would hire the Hammersmith Apollo for a week to do our experiments in – or go off to some incredibly draughty hangar in Northampton and play with silks and LED screens.
"I’ve never made so many models for one show. But it was a great, great, experience and the best thing written about it, she wrote herself, the most brilliant and comprehensive notes for the programme about the whole show."
For Dick it was the chance to meet a boyhood idol.
He laughs: "I was absolutely, madly in love with her when I was 13. She was my first big crush, so it was very interesting to meet her 35 years later.
Dick’s friend, costume and props maker Rob Allsop had worked with shadow puppets – as Kate wanted to – and Rob recommended she see a show Dick had also been working on using puppets.
But before Kate phoned him, Dick had been sounded out in a slightly mysterious way about whether he’d be free to do the show.
He recalls: "About three-quarters of an hour before, someone else rang up and said ‘Would you be free at this time but I can’t tell you why I’m asking!’.
"Then 45 minutes later the phone rang and it was Kate Bush – my unrequited crush of 35 years!" laughs Dick.
"I was very tongue-tied, but she was saying ‘I really love your work!’ and I was replying ‘I really love YOUR work!’. She’s a very extraordinary and wonderful person."
Initially, Dick had trained to be a theatre director but became fascinated with directors who were also fine artists in his post-degree work in Amsterdam and Berlin.
Then he took what for many people would have seemed a slightly left turn.
"I was always quite good at carpentry so after my MA in directing I stopped directing and started building fitted kitchens and wardrobes in people’s houses and then started building small theatre sets and models and then one of the companies I was building for, lost their designer – so I did my first design for them when I was 35.
"After that, everything happened incredibly quickly and within 18 months I was in Buenos Aires doing a show with a budget of three quarters of a million dollars!"
Dick is passionate about what he does.
"I’ve always loved in the theatre being given a sense of wonder.
"And for a moment a piece of magic can happen onstage – that, I find absolutely enchanting.
"It’s like that moment when you’re on a train in the station and the train next to you pulls out, but for a moment you think you yourself are moving.
"It fascinates me that at the time that Gilbert & Sullivan were writing The Mikado it was just shortly after Japan had become somewhere you could actually go and visit.
"It was as exotic a location as the Moon!
"Gilbert & Sullivan operas are often set in some mythical, enchanted, fairy location in order to discuss British life and politics – Japan was just that sort of exotic location for them."
And Scotland is a new world for Dick as a designer.
"It’s the first time I’ve worked with Scottish Opera and the quality of the workshops and the wardrobe is just unparalleled. The commitment to work and passion – it’s just outstanding.
" I’ve loved working here."
The Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte co-production of The Mikado comes to Eden Court on Wednesday, May 18 when the Unwrapped performance previews the production at 6pm, but the first performance of the opera's run is on tursday, May 19 at 7.15pm and runs till Saturday night.
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