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Philip Prowse - Venice Preserved

PHILIP Prowse's reputation travels well before him - exactly what you'd expect from a designer/director of such sumptuous visual finesse, who's pretty much defined the look of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre over the past 34 years as one-third of the outgoing directorial triumvirate alongside Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald.

His final production, of Thomas Otway's little-known seventeenth century, Venice Preserved, which closes this weekend, effectively ending an era, is as fitting a swansong as long-time Citz aficionados could hope or imagine. A big, brutalist epic of political conspiracy in high and low places, so rich is Venice Preserved in painterly intent, it almost bursts out of the proscenium and spills over into the auditorium.

It is a play Prowse has worked on twice now. In the early-1970s, he designed a production by Robert David MacDonald, since when ''I've always wanted to do it, and I figured,'' he says, resignedly, ''this would be my last chance.''

Typically, Venice Preserved is far from an obvious choice of play for rep theatre, often a conveyor-belt world led by whichever classics happen to be on the schools syllabus that particular season. Typically, too, Prowse's production takes huge licences with its source material, investing it in turns with irreverence, cynicism, out and out nastiness, and, most of all, sex.

There's an inherent lasciviousness in all Prowse's work that goes way beyond any glib accusations of camp. In Prowse's hands, Oscar Wilde's quintessentially well- mannered The Importance of Being Earnest becomes a hotbed of thrusting testosterone. As for Venice Preserved, of all the images that linger from Prowse's lengthy tenure in Glasgow, that of actress Victoria Scarborough's ravishing dominatrix, quite literally, whipping a cowering senator into shape, will remain long in the mind's eye.

For all its magnificent theatrical breadth, it's not just his work that means Prowse is a figure many are somewhat in awe of. Rather, it's his apparent inaccessibility, rumoured to border on the disdainful, that deters any requests for an audience, which are invariably presumed to be rebuffed even before their asking. Yet, while it's certainly true that Havergal was the diplomat of the trio, Prowse has granted interviews on these pages twice in recent times, which is about average for a man of his standing. Reputations, it seems, are far fiercer than the facts.

Leather-jacketed, slouched louchely in a Covent Garden side street outside the stage door entrance to the Royal Opera House, where he's designing a ballet of Beauty And The Beast, Prowse is old school charm personified. Only when the tape recorder is turned on does he become a tad defensive, although, even then, he qualifies each evasion with an apology.

''Thirty years ago,'' he points out as he orders a glass of red wine in a cafe right at the very top of the building, ''university students would know all about Venice Preserved. You could never imagine that happening today. Audiences have other preoccupations nowadays. If people go to the theatre at all - which they don't - they're looking for something different. Change or die,'' he shrugs. ''The audience, I mean, not me. I'm too old now.''

Such a lament sums up exactly how things have moved on since Prowse arrived at The Citizens in 1969 solely as a designer. He'd worked with Havergal in Watford, where it had been ''very starry'', and was the obvious choice for trying to do similar in Glasgow.

''It was made very obvious,'' Prowse points out, ''that that most definitely wasn't what the Scottish theatrical establishment wanted. The early days were very confrontational and aggressive with the great and the good. They kept asking us why we never put on plays by west of Scotland dramatists, and we rather feebly pointed out that, in Robert David MacDonald, we had one on the staff. But because he doesn't sound like one, and he wasn't writing about bad times in sink estates, they didn't want to know.''

Plus ca change indeed, although it's interesting to note that, years later, it was The Citz that premiered the stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Train-spotting. ''The Scots don't like to hear this,'' Prowse says provocatively of Welsh, ''but he is their major writer.''

Of his own move into directing, Prowse recalls a car ride through London with Havergal, and suggesting that he could maybe have a go at it to supplement his design brief. Havergal pooh-poohed the idea.
''He told me I'd be hopeless, and that I had no patience. But, after a couple of years I thought, 'sod this for a lark, I'll have a go'. It was at this point Prowse more or less stopped designing for his colleagues. ''I got fed up with making them look good. I said to them, look, you've had a masterclass in design for the past five years. You really ought to know how to do it now.''

Some may suggest that, so recognisable is Prowse's visual directorial style, with its rich signature palette of scarlet, black and gold, that his is a conceptual approach, more in tune with the European theatre his work emulates. In truth, it probably had more to do with his childhood in Birmingham, where he'd fallen in love with its gaudy flash. Indeed, he was only attracted to Slade School of Art by the prospect of its theatre design course.

''I don't ever want to bring anything to something,'' Prowse insists. “I just want to do the plays.''
It is Prowse, however, who brought a whiff of west end exotica to The Citz, particularly during its 1970s and 80s golden years, when the local moral minority would frequently get hot under the collar following some apparent onstage blasphemy or other, and when, unlike any other theatre in this country before or since, the unemployed could get in for free.

Once through the doors, the likes of Glenda Jackson, Georgina Hale, Murray Melvin, and Rupert Everett could be seen. Evidently, such star turns had all fallen willing prey to what one senior actor jokingly des-cribes as the director's ''oily charm''.

Indeed, in company, Prowse's manner flits between being waspish and wicked. On uttering one of many throwaway but nonetheless wither-ing remarks, about, say, Glasgow's City of Culture year, or what he sees as the Citz's move from radicalism  to a luvvied-up institution, or the ongoing rise of what he calls ''The dead hand of middle-class taste'', his eyes dart sidewards with a bitchily dismissive flutter.

Though he never comes out with it directly, it's easy to suspect a sliver of bitterness lingers over the way he was ushered out of his position without any consultation. ''It was presumed that after Giles went we all would, and that was that,'' he shrugs. One also detects that, latterly at least, there was more creative disharmony at The Citz than anyone ever let on. Of the new regime, led by new artistic director Jeremy Raison, all he'll say on the matter is a gimlet-eyed and cryptic. ''I think it's a very serious moment for that theatre.''

If there is a recent production that sums up the spirit of Philip Prowse - contentious, controversial, and unrepentantly classicist - it's Noel Coward's Cavalcade, which played the Citz main stage at the end of 1999. Traditionally played as a piece of jingoistic propaganda for a shellshocked British Empire where class division was accepted as a given, Prowse's reinvention gave proceedings a darker, more cynical edge. It's finale found actress Michelle Gomez spitting out a bile-filled version of Twentieth Century Blues, as a neon calendar above ticked off the years, running all the way up to the millennium. As an antidote to the impending swathes of self-congratulatory civic pride as the old was rung out, it was a masterstroke.

Prowse himself admits: ''It was the best thing I ever did there. I just knew there was this alternative play inside the thing. Even though things like that were done on an extremely limited budget, I think we achieved a standard that certainly isn't matched in the rest of Scotland. That may not be very popular, but it wasn't then, and it isn't now. We introduced an extraordinary range of drama for people, and I'm very proud of that. Unfortunately, the cultural establishment don't see that as important.

''You've also got to stay self-critical, otherwise you're a child looking at shit in a pot and finding it fascinating. Too many people in the theatre are like that, thinking that process is more important than the end result."

He pauses, flicks his head imperceptibly to the side, then, leaning close to the tape recorder, offers a parting shot. ''Wankers,'' he says, quietly. Then, polite as ever, ''I hope you got that.''

Venice Preserved, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until October 11th.

The Herald, October 9th 2003



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