Long time collaborators, Simon Phillips and Gabriela Tylesova, talk about their director-designer partnership ahead of the opening night for their latest project, Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the 1907 French farce A FLEA IN HER EAR. Read the full interview here.
SYDNEY MORNING HEARALD
A Flea In Her Ear the latest production for successful director-designer partnership
“We never think what we are doing is complicated until other people tell us it’s complicated,” says director Simon Phillips of the theatre productions he has created with designer Gabriela Tylesova. “We always think it’s quite simple.”
Phillips and Tylesova are overseeing the installation of the elaborate set for the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the 1907 French farce A Flea in Her Ear. On the Drama Theatre stage sits an ornate double revolve design in vivid purple. It looks, well, pretty complicated.
“We like to crack a show open and come up with interesting solutions,” Tylesova says. “Simon always challenges what you think is possible. It is never boring.”
Phillips and Tylesova have been working together for 15 years, on and off, creating some of the most visually impressive productions of recent years: the Coney Island gothic of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Love Never Dies; the strange onstage/off stage worlds of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the Sydney Theatre Company; the cartoonish settings for the Melbourne production of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
“We are always trying to find the quintessence of a show, how it should feel,” says Phillips. “Gabriela has a really acute, almost spooky sense of what that is. Sometimes she will put stuff in the model box that is amusing to her, it’s a little crazy. She is a bit crazy. But she has an immensely intelligent instinct for what embodies the show.”
The creative partners have recently worked together on the touring production of Ladies in Black, which has its Sydney premiere in January. Now, as well as finalising A Flea In Her Ear, they are deep into ideas for the world premiere of the musical version of Muriel’s Wedding, which opens in Sydney a year from now.
They clicked the first time they met, in 2001, when Tylesova, a Czech-born NIDA graduate, created the costumes for the Phillips-directed Opera Australia production Elixir of Love. Her work was nominated for a Helpmann Award the following year.
In 2003, they joined forces again for the MTC production The Visit, for which Tylesova received a Green Room Award.
They share an “aesthetic sensibility”, Phillips says, a love of visual opulence that runs against the current fashion for black box stages and minimal detail. “In that sense we are disastrously unfashionable,” laughs Phillips. “Hopelessly stuck in an archaic idiom! Unable to break into the modern era!”
Tylesova is laughing, too. “It’s like anything in life. You meet someone and you get on. You don’t even know why it works,” she says.
Early thinking for A Flea in Her Ear involved updating the look of the play to the 1950s. “Gab and I had just done The Turk in Italy [for Opera Australia] and we set that in the ’50s. It just seemed to make things easy.”
But the more Phillips and Tylesova worked the problem, the more obvious it became that the comedy would be best served by embracing the art nouveau period that spawned it.
“Before the first World War, France was celebrating, people were making big money and having affairs and going to theatres,” Tylesova says. “The play really sits in that time and embraces those virtues and hazards.”
Farce can become “tacky, quite easily”, adds Phillips. “It is very hard to do well. We think there is something about this production being lavishly dressed that lifts the farce into something heightened and makes it more enjoyable.”
The director-designer partnership thrives on a lack of preciousness, Phillips says. “There are no taboo subjects. What I love about Gab is that she is totally open. I don’t have to pussyfoot around her ego and in discussion we are very free with each other.”
They also share a disdain for dull colours – “we both don’t like brown!” they say in unison – and a love of the same cuisine. “We both like the really grisly bits of chicken,” Phillips says. “We love offal and things like that. All the bits other people hate! We both gravitate towards the same style of thing, whether it is art or offal.”