A new lease on Lighting for an iconic piece 

Tim Mitchell on lighting King Kong at the Fugard Theatre, 2017

Gearhouse Splitbeam specialises in long term equipment rental for theatrical productions in South Africa. The company is providing lighting fixtures for the much-anticipated restaging of one South Africa’s most significant, influential and iconic pieces, the “all African jazz opera”, King Kong, at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in July. 

Splitbeam’s Alistair Kilbee talks to Lighting Designer, Tim Mitchell about the revival of King Kong and discovers that while the Lighting feel remains authentic to the period, it brings the piece firmly in line with today’s lighting technological advances. 

Theatre Director, Jonathan Munby, has been quoted as saying: “We want to get away from any preconceived idea of what a musical should sound like, to get rid of all the ‘Broadwaydisation’, to stay true to the original and bring it to the 21st Century. What we are staging in this new version are things that they could not do originally which is a heightened stylisation of the boxing scenes and the use of physical theatre. We have also composed new songs for those moments where we feel that something is missing and needs fleshing out. We identified three of those moments and were to compose songs from an old archival audio recording Esme Matshikiza (Todd’s widow) found of Todd bashing out themes and ideas for the show on the piano.” *

Alistair Kilbee: “Jonathan Munby has articulated his intention of using new staging /dramatic techniques and adding new creative input and numbers to the score, taking the essence of the original production and expanding/developing it for contemporary audiences; to create an “evolution” rather than a “revival” of the original production. How did you plan on bringing these ideas to life in your Lighting design?”

Tim Mitchell: “It’s a good story, and I respond emotionally to the music, the action and quite often the way I feel at the time I’m lighting a production. We’re not the same people and we’re not in the same time as the original production and techniques and styles have very much evolved and that certainly has to be said for the lighting.”

Alistair Kilbee: “From a lighting perspective, what do you feel you bring to the production now, in 2017, that wasn’t possible in the original production?”

Tim Mitchell: “Lighting has changed dramatically even in the last ten years, let alone since the late 1950’s. Lighting design really started to sit on its own from the 1950’s onwards and certainly in the UK, lighting designers such as Michael Northern and Joe Davies, laid the foundations of what we are today as lighting designers. I am hoping that my design brings colour and movement which was not possible in the day.”

Alistair Kilbee: “The ’59 production of King Kong was very well received by South African audiences of different races and went on to a very successful season in London. The show clearly had something of a universal appeal.

Working on it now, what aspect of the show stands out for you? What do you feel makes it relevant and exciting to a contemporary audience?”

Tim Mitchell: “Ultimately, it’s story telling. It’s a good story and good stories translate to any generation, any time and any culture.” 

Alistair Kilbee: “When King Kong was first presented in ’59, it was a sensational success, and many of the cast, orchestra and creative team went on to stellar international careers. The production still stands as a milestone in local theatre.

Did you feel any pressure, coming from the UK, about designing for what has become a real icon of South African theatre?”

Tim Mitchell: “I feel proud to be part of the history of this production. It is clearly iconic and I hope I have done it justice.”

Alistair Kilbee: “The production is set in 1940’s and 50’s Johannesburg, and evokes a real sense of that time and place through its characters, their dialogue and the distinctive Jazz score. How will your lighting design contribute to transporting audiences to the King Kong era?

Are you making use of any “retro” elements in your lighting rig to achieve this?”

Tim Mitchell: “We’re using practical lamps as well as moving lights which are clearly modern, I am using a lot of tungsten instruments to give a warmer theatrical feel.”

Alistair Kilbee: “In your career, you have worked on numerous international teams, with creatives from different countries, and I assume that each such collaboration has come with its own surprises. How have you found the experience of working on a UK / South African team?”

Tim Mitchell: “The one thing that always surprises me is how technical teams across the world really are all very similar but just separated by different language. I’ve had the advantage of working with some of the team on ‘Human Being Died that Night’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I have spent many happy hours in local bars with them, talking about not just theatre but all events, and so you learn more about each other’s ways and culture. Generally, for me the crews and their input into the production is very important.”

Alistair Kilbee: “You travelled to Cape Town for the production setup and opening of King Kong at the Fugard Theatre. Has your involvement on the production whet your appetite for South African culture? What are you most interested in doing while you are in South Africa?

Tim Mitchell:  I really looked forward to working with the team at the Fugard as it’s one of the world’s prominent theatres. Sadly, as with a lot of the productions I light around the world, I will probably be spending most of my time in the theatre working, so the opportunities to get out and about will be very limited. If I get time I would certainly like to check out the South African wine which is one of my favourites. Table Mountain, Cape Peninsula and Robben Island just to say a few things. I come from Wales and a massive rugby fan, so perhaps I can check out some South African rugby! “

Alistair Kilbee: Did you feel any need to recreate elements of the original design? Did you feel free to express your own style on the production?

Tim Mitchell: No I didn’t, it’s new and fresh for a new audience. I always try and put my own style on a production as any lighting designer would.

Alistair Kilbee: What was the main attraction for you to accept the position of Lighting Designer on King Kong? 

Tim Mitchell: Working at the Fugard, the play, Jonathan Munby and Paul Wills who I have worked with in the past and have a good relationship with. Also after working with the guys in Brooklyn, I got on really well with them so get the opportunity to renew my relationship with them.

Story Robyn D’Alessandro, Photo courtesy Tim Mitchell

Aug 29, 2017

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