A New Production Of Evita Designed By Paule Constable And Christopher Oram Brings Eva Perón Back To The West End
Twenty-one years after the original production of Evita chronicled the ambition and greed of Eva Perón, the first West End revival of this celebrated Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical opened on June 24, at the Adelphi Theatre in a critically acclaimed production directed by Michael Grandage. The creative team includes lighting designer Paule Constable, set and costume designer Christopher Oram, and sound designer Mick Potter.
In an era when political celebrity is an everyday phenomenon, it is interesting to look back at the 1940s and 50s era when María Eva Duarte de Perón, known as Evita, used her beauty and charm to rise from the slums of Argentina to a position of power through her marriage to General Perón who was the president of Argentina for seven years. Evita was a social activist, adored by the working classes, yet feared by the military and the upper classes who felt she was using her public position to further her own personal aspirations.
“The scenic design charts the journey of Eva Duarte from poverty in her home town of Junin, to the splendors and heights of the capital city of Argentina,” explains Oram. “She climbed several staircases — literal and metaphorical — in that process.”
For the scenes set in Junin, a large downstage wall creates the rear of a public square, “where the locals meet, initially to mourn the passing of Evita,” notes Oram. “Later, we flashback to her humble origins in the town, and the square becomes an outdoor cafe bustling with small town claustrophobic life, from where the young Eva yearns to flee.” An aspiring performer, Eva finds an opportunity to leave when she has an affair with Magaldi, a touring singer.
After Eva leaves Junin, Oram transforms the set dramatically. “The wall, which has seemed so massive, impenetrable, and restricting, flies effortlessly out to reveal the bustling city of Buenos Aires, a broadly naturalistic representation of a square or plaza with cobweb-like, lace-filled elegant windows and delicate wrought iron balconies, marble staircases, and a large terracotta tiled floor, which takes up the entire stage of the Adelphi,” he says.
This set consists of two downstage towers that can truck on and off stage, with the palace to the rear. “It is complete with terraces and balconies above and catacombs and alleyways below representing the Casa Rosada,” notes Oram, referring to the “pink house” that is the official seat of government with the famous balcony where Evita appeared to champion the cause of the lower classes. “Beyond that, perspective buildings appear that make the city disappear off into the distance,” Oram adds.
The only video in the production is a short black and white newsreel of Evita's funeral procession — she died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33 — projected onto a front curtain during the overture. “The footage introduces us to the scale of the anguish felt in Argentina at the time of Eva's death, which then segues into a real solitary figure on our stage — a keening mother in Junin, wailing as the music swells and the requiem begins,” says Oram.
Overall, the sets present the world of Evita in a fairly naturalistic manner, “but also in a heightened way, with her emotions and ambitions represented by the scale and grandeur of her surroundings,” Oram notes. Terry Murphy Scenery in London built the sets.
One of Oram's challenges was the relatively small stage at the Adelphi. “Our new design stretched it to the limit in each direction. But after the long run of Chicago, the staff there was very up for new challenges and very helpful in solving the problems,” notes the designer, who was true to period in both the sets and costumes. “It's a very specific story of a time and place,” he says. “All of the costumes were meticulously researched, and the style of each garment represents the year in which they were worn.”
Eva's costumes — a series of suits and dresses — are tied to the steps in her life journey. “She has 17 outfits over the course of the evening, as the show covers a relatively long time span,” says Oram. “She moved from a simple 30s floral peasant frock to the ornate beaded ball gowns of her later years via the power suits that befit her status as a powerful woman in a patriarchal society.”
Generally, the costume palette is muted as Oram admits to not being a fan of very bright colors. “The simple basic is that Eva is always the most interesting thing on stage,” he says. Constable's lighting palette follows suit, literally. “The palette absolutely came from a response to Christopher's costumes,” she says. “He was using very real clothes — peasants in dusky ochre and dirty browns — in a Buenos Aires peopled by the types you see in the photos of her life. Nothing is prescriptive.”
Constable followed this palette, as she says, “trying to let these clothes breathe in the light. A warmer tone might be Lee 205 or as strong as Lee 236 but no overt oranges. Most of the color shifts from Lee 203 through to Lee 205 or 204 — a lot of sludgy dirty tones as opposed to saturated colors.” Constable also wanted to present Buenos Aires as a very European city. “I didn't want to create a pastiche image of South America with oranges and reds; I wanted to create a sophisticated European-style city peopled by real people.”
This included Evita. “Many of the images we have of Eva Perón are obviously black and white photos and film footage,” Constable notes. “She dressed like a film star; her story is operatic.” In response to Oram's set design, which Constable called “vast and architectural,” the lighting helps create the heightened sense of reality. “It wasn't going to be appropriate to cover it in colored light. It wanted to be more heightened and filmic.” This helped Constable move toward a more monochrome filmic look for the whole production, with figures picked out of darkness. She refers to Orson Welles' film The Third Man, saying, “It should make us feel nostalgic for the past without literally using the technology of the past, like a modern version of film noir. We use Svobodas [scenographer Josef Svoboda's beam lights] and ACL moving lights with big defined beams of light with cross light within.”
In looking at Constable's rig layout, two things are apparent: “The set is very high [some of the pieces sitting at over 10m (32.8') high], and there was very little space to fit anything,” she says. Yet she found that the height was ultimately useful in creating the high, beamy Hollywood iconic look that she was striving for. “The booms and cross light were a question of wherever we could make space. The scariest area was just upstage of the proscenium arch. I knew that this would be a vital position.''
To make sure this position was used to its fullest, Oram agreed to shift the scenery up by 500mm (19.7"), with Constable guaranteeing that she could fit her entire boom, downstage electric, and followspot position into that area, “with drenchers and iron runners and a downstage gauze as well,” she adds. “This was my main area of sleepless nights. When I created the rig, I was very clear as to the style of the show. The only area where I allowed myself flexibility was that I added a front-of-house cover, which I was unlikely to use but felt that I should have up my sleeve. It has gone now. I wanted the majority of my movers to be scrolled so I could really control the color palette. This meant that I had to commit to a palette early on but was convinced that I wasn't suddenly going to start using saturated color for the first time in my life.
“No one could remember what certain areas of the theatre were like as Chicago had been in there for so long,” Constable continues. “The proscenium was a complete unknown so we had many meetings which finished with the immortal words ‘sounds good, but we'll have to make the final decision once Chicago has gone.’ The grid is angled and tiny, so bars couldn't be full width.” With limited front-of-house space, she created a new side boom position in the auditorium for the downstage angles. For the followspots — due to a spot box that is at a very flat angle and to one side — Constable and crew created their own positions. “Because of weight and height and the limited flying, we had to commit to truss positions very early. We also had to design and think through focus and access. The nature of the set means that bars can't be accessed using a conventional Genie or telescope, so we have focus bridges and trusses that can drop in. All the crew had to be retrained in rope access. It was a whole other dimension to designing the rig.”
The lighting gear was supplied by White Light in London and includes a conventional rig with ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and Source Four PARs, Strand Alto and Cadenza PCs, Alto Fresnels, Strand and Arri 5kW Fresnels, PAR64s, and ADB Svoboda Light Curtain battens plus 200 Rainbow Pro scrollers in a range of sizes, as well as two Foxie and two Korrigan followspots from Robert Juliat. The moving light rig ranges from Vari-Lite's new VL500 washlight (in its B pastel-color version) to VL1000s and VL3000Q Wash units, ETC Source Four Revolutions, and Clay Paky Alpha Halo washlights.
A special moving light was created especially for this production by White Light's technical director Dave Isherwood in response to Constable's desire for a moving version of an ACL-style beam light. “We adapted the Amptown washlights that we have had in our hire stock for some time,” comments Isherwood, “replacing the bulb and optical system with a low-voltage aero-lamp to give Paule exactly the kind of beam she needed.” The new fixture is called the White Light Whispa (something to do with Isherwood's preferred snack of a Cadbury Whispa bar “being one up from an Aero…”).
Lighting designer Jon Clark served as Constable's associate, with lighting programmer Vic Smerdon controlling the entire rig from a Strand 500-series console. It now runs on a Strand 520i console networked to a rack-mounted Strand 510i as an online tracking backup. Gerry Amies was the senior production electrician, working with electricians Chris Dunford and Martin Chisnell, in addition to the Adelphi crew and John Delaney, a student from RADA. Richard Bullimore served as production manager.
The scene that includes the popular song, “Don't Cry for Me Argentina,” opens with a huge political rally outside the Casa Rosada. “The crowd is going mad as Perón enters,” explains Constable. “The balcony and buildings around are bright and monumental.” As General Perón mentions Evita's name, followspots sweep across the buildings to look for her. “Then the doors in the upstage balcony open, and she appears unlit, then steps out onto the balcony picked up by two cool Foxie followspots from steep onstage,” Constable adds. “As the event becomes bigger, all the light seeps away until all we have are two Source Four PARs backlighting her and the two followspots on her. The moment is so enormous and iconic, we've chosen to strip it down to her in the space in the simplest form possible.”
Another big lighting moment is a montage at the end of the show as Eva becomes ill after her final radio broadcast, and there is a sequence where she appears in a wheelchair at a microphone downstage center. Constable has her tightly top lit with a front-of-house followspot. “As she moves away, the followspot and any extras drop away, and we are left with Che in the same spot she inhabited. While he sings a line, she skips into a bed just upstage of him, but because we are tightly focused on him, we don't notice her taking off clothes and getting into the bed,” says Constable. “We then snap up two Revolutions focused into a tight box on the bed from directly above.”
The next section of the show is lit mainly from the bounce from these two fixtures. “Evita was the light to the people of Argentina, so she literally becomes the source of light and the point of focus for the montage,” Constable concludes. “It requires a careful balance of haze to work, but it looks very beautiful and simple.”
EVITA selected lighting gear
15 Vari-Lite VL500 B
2 Vari-Lite VL1000 AS
10 Vari-Lite VL3000Q Wash
30 ETC Revolution
2 Clay Paky Alpha Halo Wash
8 White Light Whispa - ACL Moving Light
25 10° ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 750W
11 19° ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 750W
46 26° ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 750W
30 36° ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 750W
29 Strand Alto PC
4 Strand Cadenza PC
14 Strand Alto Fresnel
4 Strand Bambino 5kW Fresnel
5 ARRI 5kW Fresnel
35 ETC Source Four PAR 750W MFL
2 ETC Source Four PAR 750W NSP
28 PAR64 CP60
38 PAR64 CP61
30 PAR64 CP62
4 ADB 2,500W Svoboda Light Curtain Batten
44 Birdie 24°/38°
2 Robert Juliat Foxie 700W MSR Followspot
2 Robert Juliat Korrigan 1,200W MSR Followspot
2 MDG Atmosphere Hazer
2 Look Solutions Unique Hazer
9 15" Rainbow Pro Scroller
10 12" Rainbow Pro Scroller
127 8" Rainbow Pro Scroller
56 6" Rainbow Pro Scroller
Robert Juliat Glass Gobo Holder