Set designer Owen Phillips says he’s never worked on a production like Vivid White, but it’s a ride that he’s been thrilled to go on.
Set Designer Owen Phillips first came across Eddie Perfect’s satirical comedy about an apocalyptic, real estate-obsessed Melbourne in August 2016. At that point, Vivid White was still a play with no songs, no ensemble, and one with new drafts coming in regularly.
Surprisingly, Phillips says, the bulk of the show has remained the same. Except for the addition of 14 songs, he jokes. ‘I suppose I was always prepared for big changes or even small changes. There hasn’t been as many as I expected for design. Changes for the actors on the other hand – that’s a different story.’
‘There was talk of entire scenes changing, some scenes had question marks over them from the beginning, so I wasn’t doing as much work on them as others, and then the new scripts would come in and the scene in question would still be in there. In fact one scene that we thought would be cut altogether got bigger. So you definitely have to be flexible and dynamic working on a brand new production.’
Phillips says there is something reassuring about working on a script that has been done before – a sense of ‘if they can do it, so can we.’ However, designing the set for a brand new work means the creative team can put their individual stamp on a project and have an impact on how the story is told.
The first provocation that Phillips took away from reading the script was that it had an ‘epic’ quality to it. ‘To me it felt like one of those big epics that the National Theatre put on – like those Russian plays where the Civil War is going on in the background, but it’s just about people grappling with what it means to be human. It had that quality of the two contrasting scales.’
In Vivid White, the contrast of scale is evident in the way Phillips’s set opens up and closes back down to create vast and intimate spaces. ‘I definitely realised that we had to build up to the ‘dream house’, and that had to be the whole crescendo of the design, in the same way it’s the crescendo of the script. It’s what we’re building up to the entire night.’
Vivid White is Phillips’s biggest production to date in terms of scale, collaboration, work-hours and overall effort. ‘When I first read the script, I was just nervous. There are some completely absurd stage directions, which seemed more or less impossible to execute. I’m still kind of surprised [we’ve got to this point].’
Phillips says the play would have been inconceivable to design without the addition of an external contractor – A Blanck Canvas, who took responsibility for the show’s giant, surprise set piece. ‘Joe [from A Blanck Canvas] was recommended by an absurd amount of people and his final vision for this set piece has been almost identical to the vision I first conceived.’
The first act of the play is broken up into different scenes that are distinguished by different colour schemes. Red for Liz and Ben’s house, blue for Cynthia and Evan’s house, green for Evan’s office, yellow for the auction scene and white for the ‘dream house’. Phillips sponged inspiration for this ‘very Melbourne play’ from a quintessentially Melbourne artist, John Brack, who was renowned for using colour in unusual ways. ‘All the colours in Evan’s office are pulled from one painting of Brack’s,’ he says. ‘He had a beautiful way with colours, and colours that might not traditionally go with each other.’
For Phillips, the world of Vivid White, represented a vapid and materialistic space where the characters of the play were all striving to reach a domestic nirvana. ‘It didn’t make sense for Liz and Ben to be in this white space at the start, so we came up with the idea to not use any white, until we got to the final scene. We’ve stuck to that pretty closely, excluding the inside of the fridge, the auction contract and a few bits of paper through-out.’
Phillips says Melbourne Theatre Company had been ‘perpetually amazing’ in problem solving difficult set elements. ‘No one’s ever been shocked at a request or said, “that’s impossible”. The vibe I’ve gotten is that people really loved [Eddie Perfect’s first play] The Beast, so I think the company has been very willing to go along for the ride on this one.’
Phillips says he’s never come across a production like Vivid White. ‘The thing about this show is, I’ve never seen or read anything like it. It’s this really black comedy with a sharp social satirical edge, combined with beautiful, hilarious songs. It’s so much. The way I’ve described it to people is that you can’t describe it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or read before and how often do you come across a show like that?’
The Vivid White journey has been a challenging one, but ultimately a gratifying one for this creative team. Phillips says above all else, he’s looking forward to sitting in the auditorium and seeing how the audience react to the play’s many big reveals on opening night. There’s also one song that Phillips says is guaranteed to pull on his heartstrings.
‘I love Chrissy’s [Christina O’Neill’s] final song, I think that’s a moment that could be incredibly powerful. Her character sees the light, and it’s a tried and true plot device, but you don’t expect it in this show …. It’s such a beautiful song and Chrissy’s voice is amazing. I’ll be on the edge of my seat for that. I always find there’s one song in every musical and you just think, that’s my favourite song. It’s potentially a showstopper … I hope it is.’
See Vivid White at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 18 November to 23 December.