BANKING over Regents Park Open Air Theatre, the roar of jet engines brought an uneasy poignancy to that evening’s performance of Lord of The Flies taking place a few hundred feet below.
The wrecked fuselage of just such a plane takes pride of place in Jon Bausor’s stunning set design and, with a steady queue of planes on their final approach to London City Airport passing overhead, the sense of danger is suddenly heightened, the chilling realisation of the fragility of human life all too evident.
William Golding’s 1954 modern classic tells of a group of British schoolboys marooned on an uninhabited island and their attempts to govern themselves.
What starts as a desert island adventure quickly descends into a struggle for survival in a sinister existence of superstition and immorality.
In Regent’s Park Theatre’s critically acclaimed production, which tours to the Festival Theatre next week, that nameless island has been created by Bausor, who is no stranger to the Nicolson Street theatre having designed the National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays, which opened there.
However, transferring his open air Lord of the Flies into a proscenium arch theatre is arguably one of his biggest challenges to date.
“I did the James plays at the Festival Theatre. They were three big shows and historically important to Scotland. Doing them at the time of the referendum was pretty amazing,” he recalls, when we meet at Regent’s Park, the morning after seeing his al fresco set in all its realistic glory.
“We were at The National here in London on the day of the referendum,” he continues, “and the energy in the auditorium was immense. I’ll never forget it.
“Before they went on, all the actors were backstage banging the windows. It felt very tribal, as if they were saying, ‘This is the moment everybody...’
As it happened, it wasn’t, but the word tribal is one that is more than appropriate for his latest project.
For Lord of the Flies, Bausor had to create a crash site on a deserted island. Under the stars on a dark night, with stage smoke and strobe lighting flashing through the trees that provide a lush backdrop to the action, the effect is stunning.
“It’s pretty big, a wide stage and with no back wall, just trees, and that makes it seem to go on for ever.
“However, one of the things I’m quite passionate about as a designer is focusing a stage, providing a sense of scale and height, while also providing a focus for the actor,” he explains. “They are the most important person on the stage, so they must not be dwarfed by 40 metre trees or scenery that is just too big.”
In Lord of the Flies, that focus is provided by the life-size fuselage. On this massive piece the actors fight, climb, play and descend into animalistic behaviour. It represents the island world Golding created in his novel.
“The plane is that world... where they go when they talk about going up the mountain or to various parts of the island, “ confirms Bausor.
“I was intrigued by the idea that the tail of the plane could become the mountain; that the wing could become the hill, that the hut could become part of the wing, while another hut became part of the fuselage.
“I suppose you could design a show that was scene change after scene change, but I was not interested in doing that. I wanted a world they could inhabit, much as we did when we had adventures ‘travelling around the world’ as kids in the school playground.
“So there’s a sense of them playing on this very small piece of ground but imaging this entire island.
“What is interesting is that, as they do, you start to wonder if they imagining it or if it is real.”
Of course, when Lord of the Flies opens at the Festival Theatre, the trees will be props, there will be no planes overhead and no stars visible from the auditorium.
Bausor says, “We’re indoors. In a theatre. So what do you do? You could crash the plane through the back wall, but then it starts to become a different thing.
“It starts to feel a bit like a dystopian novel instead of what we were doing, which was creating a sense of uber-reality in a theatre setting.
“So, although the plane is obviously a hyper-realistic thing, surrounding it will be trees in a more theatrical sense. It will be slightly more abstract, but as you come to the centre of the stage it will become more and more real.
“I want it to be as immersive as possible, so to get that sense of the plane exploding into the auditorium there will be clothes and cases scattered there, and things in the circle to give the impression we are coming through the proscenium and into the audience.”
The idea is to create the impression of “clothes and cases flying out from the fuselage on impact” he adds. “If the producers would allow it, I’d actually take seats off sale and put an engine in the middle of the auditorium, that would be great, but they won’t allow me to do that.”
Creating such a dynamic set is not without its headaches, of course, not least the need to meet health and safety requirements.
“As a designer you try to push the realms of engineering because you are trying to create an illusion. You come up with an idea but sometimes that might not be the safest way of doing it and it just cannot be dangerous. Danger has to be factored out completely. When people are doing things at speed and with high adrenalin, those safety factors have to be even higher.”
Laughing, he adds, “That’s the secret, to make it look to the audience that it is stupidly dangerous when, in fact, it isn’t.”
Lord of the Flies, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, various times, £14.50-£32.50, 0131-529 6000