Joyce McMillan: Dundee, a city of rediscovery

Award winning set designers Finn Ross and Bunny Christie on the set of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Award winning set designers Finn Ross and Bunny Christie on the set of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
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Dundee is making the most of the wealth of opportunties in the creative industries, but individuals should too, writes Joyce McMillan

When the audience gathers at Dundee Rep next Saturday evening, they’ll be celebrating on at least four fronts. The event is called Design For The Imagination, featuring leading UK theatre designer Bunny Christie and top theatrical video and projection artist Finn Ross. And it’s designed not only to celebrate and explore their exceptional achievements, as Scottish-born designers who have built successful international careers, but to reflect Dundee’s new status as a global Unesco City of Design, to contribute to the month-long Ignite Dundee festival of creativity, and to explore the potential for collaboration between Dundee Rep, and the new V&A Dundee museum on the waterfront, set to open in 2018.

When Dundee’s City of Design status was confirmed in 2014, the Scottish government’s Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said that the award strengthened the city’s “growing reputation as a hub of cultural and creative excellence, and an international centre for creative industries”; and despite the range of post-industrial problems Dundee has faced over the last half-century, there’s no doubt that her words are justified by the sheer force of the city’s alternative creative history.

This is the place, after all, that gave us not only jam, jute and journalism, but also some of the most elegant specialist shipbuilding in Scotland, generations of fine textile design, and a terrific graphic tradition that created the Beano, the Dandy, the Bunty, the Broons, and even the much-loved Jackie magazine, currently celebrated in a smash-hit stage musical. Dundee was the first home of Rockstar Games, creators of Grand Theft Auto, has a world-class modern art centre at Dundee Contemporary Arts, and boasts several leading academic institutions in technology and the visual arts.

So it’s perhaps hardly surprising that the city’s Rep theatre, now in a fine 1980s building in Tay Square designed by Dundee architects Nicoll Russell, is – with Pitlochry – Scotland’s leading producing theatre outside Glasgow and Edinburgh, famous for the visual and design quality of its productions. And that makes the Rep a particularly appropriate setting for a conversation with Christie and Ross, who first met when they worked together on the National Theatre of Great Britain’s multi-authored climate change piece Greenland, and went on in 2012 to collaborate on the award-winning NT adaptation of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s powerful novel about Christopher, a boy with behavioural problems who has a terrific gift for maths and numbers, and who – despite huge stress – uses his special skills to resolve a whodunnit-cum-family-drama which begins with the strange, violent death of a neighbour’s dog.

“It’s quite a lonely moment, when you first confront the task of designing a show,” says Christie, who was born in St Andrews in 1962, went from Madras College to Central St Martin’s School of Art in London, and is now a leading designer for the National Theatre as well as other major companies. “With The Curious Incident, the first thought from Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, the playwright and director, was that the show should be done in a very “rough theatre” style, with just a suggestion of a school gym.

“Yet the more I read and loved the script, the more I felt that we could and should have more fun with the story, create a more game-like world that really gave us a sense of Christopher’s inner life. They agreed; and it’s at that point that you start to bring in Finn and other designers, to realise the concept.”

The result, in The Curious Incident, was a ceaseless whirl of glowing numbers and images swooping around the set, in an unforgettable and often breathtaking evocation of Christopher’s subjective experience.

“It was a wonderful show to work on,” says Ross, now in his mid-30s, who grew up on Deeside, and moved into theatre technology and design via the Alternative Theatre course at Central School of Speech and Drama in London, before working on outstanding productions including Interiors by the Glasgow-based company Vanishing Point, set to be revived for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

“I’ve always loved the physical and visual aspects of theatre, and this show simply had everything – great script, performances, movement, light and design. I love that collaborative and social aspect of theatre, that you’re always working with a team. And although shows like Curious Incident involve some very complex imagery and technology, I’m a bit of a “less is more” man myself. I like to pare things back, until everything that happens is supporting the live performance and the actors, and not distracting from them.”

Christie agrees. “I know it can be tough for people starting out in what’s essentially a freelance profession,” she says, “but I would honestly recommend a life in theatre to anyone who has a practical skill, and wants to find an interesting and creative way of using it. Carpenters, electricians, people who are brilliant with computer technology, even skilled tailors, because we’re desperately short of those – how many people with those interests ever think of working in theatre? Yet this is what we in Britain are good at, what we’re recognised for worldwide. And instead of installing double glazing somewhere, people could be working here at the National or in some other big company, being part of these huge collaborative teams, contributing to projects that have real meaning for everyone involved. That’s what I love best about theatre; and I’d like as many young people as possible to have the chance to come into this business, and to experience that.”

• The Design For The Imagination session is at Dundee Rep on 21 May. Designs for The Curious Incident feature in the current Curtain Up exhibition at the V&A, London, until 31 August. Interiors is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 6-8 August.