Arts on Friday
The Palmerston North production of The History Boys at the Globe Theatre has a special set, as producer Damian Thorne tells reporter Lee Matthews.
Masses of pages from retired encyclopedias – thriftily bought from the Red Cross book sale – help create the atmosphere on the set of The History Boys.
The Alan Bennett play opens at the Globe Theatre on May 10, and producer and co-director Damian Thorne is flat out building the set.
He has designed a series of acting spaces, forming walls from sheets of 100mm freestanding polystyrene that are covered with encyclopedia pages and posters to lend the classroom space a busy, action-packed feel. The walls are carefully sited to avoid blocking sight lines, also form the headmaster's study, and the corridors outside the classroom, where the play also takes place.
He wanted a box effect, to give distinctly separate spaces.
"It's testing the size limits of the stage here. It'll be full and very busy," Thorne says. "We're using every inch and corner of the stage."
He's also using a fly wall. It's the fourth wall of the classroom, and will be flown three metres up into the Globe roof. The Globe doesn't often use a fly wall, because the roof space is tight – about 6m above the stage.
"I didn't want curtains. I wanted the set to have impact immediately the audience walks in, so they'll be in the play from the moment they arrive."
Close scrutiny of the classroom's walls reveals pictures of Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, diagrams on how to safely lift things ... and there's an Equus poster, hiding off to one side.
"If you look closely, you'll see all sorts," Thorne says. He directed Equus at The Globe in 2010.
The History Boys is set in a secondary school in Sheffield. Traditionally, its bright young lads head off to university at Leeds and Bristol, but there's this upwardly mobile headmaster who wants them to aim for the Oxbridge universities.
Thorne's set his version in the 1980s, when Britain was first gripped by league tables that ranked school performance by tick-box outcomes – does this sound frighteningly familiar today in New Zealand?
"Get up the league tables, get up the rankings, get more funding," Thorne says. "Of course, there's resistance."
He's enjoying costuming the play, raiding Palmerston North's theatre wardrobes for 80s clothing. Shoulder pads rule!
Thorne was born and bred in Palmerston North, and went to Palmerston North Boys' High School at a time when acting wasn't particularly cool, but sport was.
"I hid in the library," he says. "It's great to see how strong arts and drama and music is at Boys' High now, they're doing some really high-quality work."
His career has been logistics and management – cinemas, services on board the Lynx ferry, theatres in London and the BBC's catering department. He found that experience perfect training for producing and directing plays; the segue was a natural development.
Back in Palmerston North in 2009, he did Wit at the Globe, then Equus, then The Little Dog Laughed last year. The History Boys is probably the biggest production he has undertaken – 13 in the cast – and he is grateful to co-director Gael Haining Ede. He says he enjoys an element of risk in his productions; it makes people think.
He'll next perform in the Abbey Theatre's production of Chess later this year. "Just acting in that; it'll be restful to have just one hat on."
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