Sunday 10 April 2016

Britain is a country robbed by Alzheimer's of its great, theatre stage, set designer, John Gunter

John Gunter, who has died aged 77, nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was responsible for the look of some of the most memorable shows in 20th Century British theatre, where he consistently created worlds of  pleasure for the audience.

In 2012, five years after he was diagnosed, John staged an exhibition, in the Lower Gallery of Lauderdale House, Highgate, in which he presented his 45 years of professional work, including miniature sculptures, and abstract drawings made since his diagnosis. At that point John couldn't remember much about the reasons for his work. He couldn't  remember his distinguished career, where he worked alongside the likes of Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, who at that time described him as “an expert, knowledgeable about all the arts, deeply practical and with supremely good taste.”

John also couldn't remember much about the day when he and his wife, Micheline, got married in Chelsea Town Hall in 1969, when he was a 31 year-old set designer. John had been in Vancouver with the 'Mermaid Theatre' in 1967 when he met her, a New York-born dancer with Glen Teley's Company and she came with him to London and danced with Robert Cohan’s  New London Contemporary Dance Theatre.     
So what was the life and career of this remarkable man, the memories of which were robbed from him by his cruel condition ? John was born a year before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1938, the younger son of Charlotte, an actor and Herbert, a popular GP in Billericay, Essex and from the age of 13 was educated at Bryanston, a mixed public school near  Blandon Forum in Dorset with its motto 'Et nova et vetera' 'Both the new and the old.' Quinlan Terry, the later architect, was in the year above him and Terence Conran had left shortly before he joined. In school he had shown an aptitude for drawing and making model aeroplanes and back in London he, with his Mother's encouragement, successfully applied for a place at the 'Central School of Art and
Design' in Camden, London where he studied under the revered Ralph Koltai. 

After graduating in 1959, his first job was making costumes for 'The Rivals' at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and he followed this with a stint of making birdcages and copper fruit trees for antique shops and further spells in rep at Hornchurch and the Bristol Little Theatre, before winning a competition and joining the Royal Court as 'Resident Designer' at the age of 27 in 1965.

In his first year he designed the sets for Edward Bond’s stark, poetic and brutal Saved' with its controversial scene with Ronald Pickup alongside Tony Selby and a teenager called Dennis Waterman, in which they lark about with a baby in its pram, poking it, pulling off its nappy, goading each other until they stone it to death.

In 1967 he demonstrated the quality of his costume sketch for the Royal Court in the 'The Soldiers Fortune' although he confessed 40 years later : "I’m not a great costume designer I just love working with people with great talent and letting them loose, telling them what I’d love to see, and then letting it flow from there. It’s then wonderful to be surprised when you get something that you hadn’t really expected."

The following year he was working on 'The D.H. Lawrence Trilogy', which saw the putting together the three plays of childhood, marriage and death in a Nottinghamshire village as one panorama of English working-class life, directed by Peter Gill. He devised a set in 'The Daughter-in-Law' in two angles, so that the audience could see the action and counter action. Along with Assistant Director, James Moran and Deirdre Clancy the clothes designer he had visited Eastwood where James recalled : 'We found Princes Street and located an empty house which we explored. And that is the house upon which we based the designs in the Daughter in Law and subsequent elements of the two other plays.'

It was at the rigorously austere Royal Court, where the governing, Brechtian aesthetic was that of putting an actor and other less animate objects, on the stage, before any scenery, that he served his apprenticeship and it was here that he designed 28 productions.

He worked on David Hare’s 'Slag' in 1970 with its cast of  Lynn Redgrave, Anna Massey, and Barbara Ferris which was a breakthrough play for David and won for him the 'Evening Standard' 'Most Promising New Playwright' and launched his prolific and successful career.

After five years he had, by this time, specialised in architectural feats and was a past master at putting houses, contraptions or edifices on the stage and for David Storey’s The Contractor in 1970, this featured his huge wedding tent that was erected, decorated and then dismantled over three acts and at the time, both baffled and fascinated critics.

John Osborne's 'West of Suez' was his 12th play and was the main attraction in the Royal Court's 1971 Season with John's sets in an imaginary former British colony with Ralph Richardson as its main character, the elderly novelist Wyatt Gillman, resembling a fading Evelyn Waugh, who has become a spent force and a prophet opposed to change.

John's international career began in 1970 with a four year residency at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus and he pursued an increasingly busy freelance career in Britain and found time to head up the Theatre Design Department at the Central School and abroad, notably in Broadway productions as both scenic and costume designer, as in 'The Philanthropist' in 1976.

John's first design for the National Theatre was for Michael Rudman’s 1979 revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Warren Mitchell, at 'The Lyttelton' for which he won his first Olivier Award as Willy Loman in a performance hailed by 'The Stage' as 'the greatest triumph of this actor’s achievements to date' which came to define his stage career as much as Garnett defined his tv profile..

In 1981 with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he set Trevor Nunn’s beautiful 19th-century 'All’s Well That Ends Well ' with Peggy Ashcroft making her last stage appearance as the Countess in a gigantic conservatory.

In 1982 it was Richard Eyre’s glorious revival of 'Guys and Dolls' with the National Theatre in the Olivier that he set the stage with a riot of sensational neon-lit Broadway billboards and adverts and of which Richard said this week in The Guardian : 'His set was a joyous and ingenious invention that fully exploited the most thrilling aspect of stage design – the ability to transform space; it moved effortlessly from the intimate to the epic, from the realistic to the fantastic, while making each location specific and detailed and full of character. It was a love letter to Broadway that made the audience smile and cheer.'

In the same year he was awarded the 1982 'London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Designer' of 1981 for 'Guys and Dolls' and 'The Beggar's Opera' for his collaboration with director Richard Eyre at 'The Cottesloe.' The following year he mastered the theatre with ingenious moveable houses mounted on trucks, and panoramic vistas of Bath.for 'The Rivals' directed by Peter Wood.

The Olivier auditorium was his true domain as he demonstrated with his third great city design hit on the Olivier stage : a turbulent, revolutionary Florence in Alfred de Musset's 'Lorenzaccio' was conjured with huge statues, sweeping curtains, ladders and scaffolding.

In 1983 he also spread David Edgar’s political epic, 'May Days' 1983, focussed on the Hungarian Uprising, an English University and Greenham Common at the height of the Thatcher revolution, in which David's his apostate anti-hero, Martin Glass, grows tired of the posturing of Communist party politics and, in a moment of right-wing epiphany, sees his entire belief system come crashing down : "You see, I don't think it's just Stalin, or even Lenin. I think it is the whole idea that our childlike sense of justice and compassion and fair play, the thing that got us here, that we must hone and beat it down, from a ploughshare to a sword; that there's no morality except the interests of the revolution."

 Also in 1983 he was the guest of Roy Plomley on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs' and chose as his nominated luxury :  “more William Walton.”

Then, for Michael Frayn’s rewrite of Anton Chekhov’s 'Platonov' as 'Wild Honey' in 1984, he provided four atmospheric settings, including the terrifying sight of an onrushing train and the following year was awarded the 'Laurence Olivier Theatre Award' for 'Best Designer.' In 1985, in Gogol's 'The Government Inspector', audiences at the Olivier adored his surreal setting : its sea of bureaucratic paperwork and huge portrait of the Tsar stole the show every night.

The 1980's also saw him designed Benjamin Britten’s 'Albert Herring' and Giuseppe Verdi’s 'Falstaff' for Peter Hall at Glyndebourne and in In Trevor Nunn’s 1986 Glyndebourne production of 'Porgy and Bess' he created the teeming world of 'Catfish Row' poured through the ramshackle, transparent remains of an 18th-century colonial mansion. In addition, at the Royal Opera House he designed 'Simon Boccanegra' and - one of his personal favourites – 'The Flying Dutchman' and he opened the new house on the Sussex Downs with designs for 'The Marriage of Figaro' in 1994.

In 'Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell' in 1989, starring Peter O’Toole, at the Apollo in the West End, in which the titular character woke at five in the morning in his preferred Soho hostelry, 'The Coach and Horses' and in which John's lovingly accurate interior tilted on a diagonal axis, as if seriously hung over itself.

In the same year it was 'Hamlet' with Daniel Day-Lewis replaced by Richard Eyre after his breakdown on stage and Judi Dench as Gertrude and of which Michael Coveney of 'The Financial Times' applauded the costumes and sets, which he said evoked 'the cold, windswept northern Europe of Cranach the Elder and Durer' and 'John Gunter's design is dominated by a grey, stone, Comendatore-like statue of the old king, and his careful recreations of lance-infested battle scenes are inset in a grim corridor that extends the Denys Lasdun concrete nightmare into the very heart of Elsinore.'

John Caird's revival of 'The Seagull', also in 1989, led Paul Taylor in 'The Independent' to comment : 'At the start, the setting is almost empty. The cast then assemble and start to mill about as though conscious of participating in a work of art. Beginning with the rectangular outline of the makeshift stage on which Konstantin's experimental drama is to be performed, John Gunter's design adds, act by act, fresh layers of proscenium-like frame to this stage picture, each smaller and more cluttered with objects. By the final scene, you seem to be looking at a palimpsest of all that has gone before, and when, at the back, you see the original stage collapse as Konstantin walks forward into the present, the effect is undeniably moving.'

In 1998 at the age of 60 he was nominated for a 'Laurence Olivier Theatre Award' for 'Best Set Designer of 1997' for the Peter Hall Company's 1997 classic repertory season, which included Beckett’s 'Waiting for Godot', with Ben Kingsley as Estragon at the Old Vic Theatre.

He was nominated for a 2003 'London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Stage Designer' for "Love's Labour Lost", performed at the Royal National Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn with Joseph Fiennes and confessed that when Trevor asked him he "was rather surprised since it is rarely produced" "Trevor knew he wanted an idyllic glade and I happened to be passing a card shop in which there was an extraordinary photograph of a beech tree. I thought that trying to bring a magnificent tree onto the Olivier stage was rather a marvellous place to start. I rushed away and made a model within the week. He seemed to be very happy with what I had done, but then of course one has to put it together and make it work, and find the people to make such a thing. One thing about trying to emulate nature is that you have to be very careful that it ends up looking as if nature has done it and not something that you know is strapped together in a rather haphazard way. We were lucky to get the very, very good makers, Sam Kelly from Souvenir, who embarked on this epic tree which stands over 10.5m high with a girth which must be about 3.5m across, surrounded by a whole swathe of grass. It has to do two things; it has to be the battle scene prologue and epilogue to the piece, as well as the extraordinary forest glade that Trevor wanted."

In 2004 he worked on Tevor's 'Hamlet' at the Old Vic with 23-year-old unknown named Ben Whishaw in the lead, who catapulted instantly to fame with his unforgettable performance.

His last theatre designs were for the Peter Hall Company over several seasons, a Peter Gill revival of John Osborne’s second play, 'Epitaph for George Dillon', starring Joseph Fiennes and Anne Reid, at 'The Comedy' in 2005, of which ' Michael Billington in 'The Guardian' said : 'Peter Gill's production and John Gunter's design exactly capture the gestures towards ghastly good taste of 1950s suburbia: the Radio Times lovingly encased in an embroidered folder, the square mantelpiece clock, the kitsch picture of birds in flight.'

His set for Peter Hall's Verdi's 'Otello' at Glyndbourne in 2005 met the disapproval of Martin Kettle in The Guardian who thought : 'John Gunter's set, which displaces too much of the action and attention on to multistorey verandahs that cool the white heat of Verdi's depictions of the central relationships. Otello works best when it is sung down at the footlights.'

In 2006 there were also designs for English National Opera at the Coliseum, including a rare revival in 2006 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 'Sir John in Love' with a twisting configuration of Tudor houses in the shadow of Windsor Castle and of which Andrew Clark said in the Financial Times : 'Nor do I have anything but admiration for the simple, evocative sets ,John Gunter and Nigel Levings.'

In his last work he set a monolithic slab of ecclesiastical grey stone for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt at the Tricycle, North London, in 2007 for a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, with the the action revolving around a collision between the formidable principal, Sister Aloysius, and the charismatic Father Flynn, who taught PE and religion and she suspected him of having sexual designs on a 12-year-old boy, who, as the school's only black pupil.

It was in 2007 that John’s condition began in a small way. “He started forgetting things and I knew something was wrong” said Micheline. “One morning he woke up and said, ‘When I go downstairs to the kitchen, I think I’m in a foreign land.’”

John appeared to be going gently into the dark night and the fact that by 2012 he couldn't  remember much of his prolific design career, which included those memorable 'Porgy And Bess' at Glyndebourne and 'Guys And Dolls' at the National, wasn't troubling him too much : “I just go on. It wasn’t: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to crash.’ I just don’t mind. I can’t actually say that I’m fighting to get it all back. I suppose I’ve turned a corner and I’m just saying that this is what I’m going to do now. It doesn’t hurt me. I’m very happy with what I’m doing.”

Gradually life changed for John. He could no longer read the plays he'd once read and his creativity had changed with his technical drawings and scale models of his former stage sets with their intricate perfection, replaced by sculptures of rocks and beautiful abstract drawings that evoked years of creativity and training freed from the practical restraints of the theatre.

John approached his condition with equanimity : “I can’t remember much of my former work. If people talk to me about it, I have it in my head and then it just goes. I live in another country now, in my head. But, you know, it doesn’t worry me, it’s actually a wonderful release.”

When prompted to remember his memories of theatre productions all over the world, small and often unconnected anecdotes returned to him : “There was a play in Buenos Aires. We had to sign the contract with a General who said if there was a war, the whole thing would have to be scrapped. There were people just shooting in the street at the time and I remember too that the play was so moving that the director just wept in my arms.”

In tribute to John this week Richard Eyre said :
'I learned from John that what you left off the stage was as important as what you put on it, and that being “theatrical” could have as much to do with austerity as excess. From him too, I learned that designing a play is a process of discussion, anecdotes, sketches, photographs and reference books; that you have to keep asking, “What’s this for?” and “What does this mean?”; and that a designer needs to be an architect, engineer, painter and sculptor.'

In 2003 John said :

"One has to have a deep and almost intimate rapport with all the people one works with, because you are bouncing ideas back and forth and its that sense of co-operation that you build up whether it’s for the set, props or painters. It’s about trying to establish a rapport so that they feel confident that what you are talking about together is allowing them to have the freedom to explore things further. It’s very important to get that right and so it becomes a pleasurable experience putting the thing together – a very easy atmosphere, fun and a few giggles."

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