Award-winning et designer Scott Pask explains why he is leaving so much to the audience’s imagination for the Lyceum’s musical adaptation of Local Hero. Interview by Alistair HarknessOne of the most enduring aspects of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero is the way it captures not just the Scottish landscape, but the transformative effect it has on its protagonist. In this wistful comedy about a materialistic Texan oil executive called Mac who arrives in Scotland to plunder a stretch of coastline, only to fall for its ineffable charms, the landscape becomes a character in its own right. But it’s a character Forsyth all but dares us to take for granted, undercutting its swooning romanticism with droll humour, ensuring that by the time Mac realises he’s fallen for it, it’s worked its magic on us too.
Conveying the power of that landscape is something Scott Pask has had to wrestle with a lot of late. For the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s forthcoming musical adaptation of Local Hero, he’s responsible for designing the sets and the costumes and is unafraid to admit that tackling the landscape is one of the things he’s most apprehensive about – not least because he understands how much the locations mean to the film’s many fans, especially in Scotland. But if you’re wondering how you even start to represent such an integral part of the film in the enclosed space of a theatre, Pask’s answer is surprisingly simple.
“My response is to not do that,” he says. “The imagination is going to be far stronger and far more powerful than anything I put there, so if I start putting the naturalistic elements of that on stage, we’re lost: it will never be as majestic or breathtaking or memorable as what we imagine and what we remember and what we’ve seen outside before we walk into the theatre. So, for me, it’s incredibly important to avoid falling into the trap of representation.” Which isn’t to say the New York-based Pask – whose credits include The Book Of Mormon and current Broadway sensation The Band’s Visit (Edinburgh Festival devotees might also remember his work on the 2000 fringe hit, The Donkey Show) – has ignored the landscape altogether. On the contrary, he’s made extensive field trips to Mallaig to visit the nearby Camusdarach Beach, where the film was partially shot (the village of Pennan, 180 miles to the east, doubled for the fictional village of Furness). He’s also spent a lot of time in galleries and museums looking at the work of Scottish landscape painters.
Nevertheless, he says, “there’s a simplicity about how we’re creating and making and crafting these things on stage, and it doesn’t involve a lot of big trucks of scenery trundling in and trundling off. “I hope the word ‘poetic’ will come to people’s minds,” he continues, trying to describe the approach without giving away spoilers about the set design. “There is an abstractness about it that I hope is evocative. We start in Houston and then we get to Furness, but there’s a moment when we reveal where we’re going – or spending the night, let’s say – and I hope that there’s an intake of breath when we reveal it.”
The adaptation process is, of course, a tricky one, especially with a well-known property with lots of audience pre-awareness. In the movie world, adaptations have increasingly come under the tyranny of fan service, with filmmakers and studios going to extraordinary lengths to appease vocal devotees of the source material lest they take to social media and complain about their favourite elements not being included. Local Hero has the benefit of having the defiantly unsentimental Forsyth as an active participant in the process (he’s co-adapted it with the Lyceum’s artistic director, David Greig), but Pask is also insistent that everything has to earn its place on the stage, even a certain red telephone box. “Today, I’m just going to say we have one,” he says, laughing conspiratorially. “We may not tomorrow. We have one in the room that we’re playing with. But we’re being very judicious about what we’re putting on that stage, so it needs to earn its place in the flow.”
Still, he does admit it’s so iconic – in the film it provided Mac with his only connection to his old life and featured prominently on the poster – that it probably will make it into the show. “Also, I love the burst of colour that comes in with it,” he says. He’s also loved designing the costumes. The musical is set in 1983, the year the film came out, so period authenticity has been essential. “I’m meticulous about that stuff,” says Pask, who hails from Arizona originally, and so identifies too with the film’s outsider themes.
I keep joking that after this I’d like to see people in the fashion world pay more attention to knitwear and Fair Isle sweaters – and I keep jesting that we’ll see a resurgence of wide-wale corduroy trousers.”
The trick, however, is not to be too heavy-handed. “With the Houston scenes, we do represent that whole Reagan/Thatcher greed era of suits with shoulder pads, but we don’t do it in such an arch way that it’s like a parody. It’s absolutely not Dallas!” Pask starts work on any production by doing quick thumbnail sketches, which he shares with the director, in this case John Crowley (they’ve worked together many times before). It then becomes a matter of having conversations about what’s needed, building models and sometimes using digital storyboards to run through lots of ideas. In this case it’s been a very organic process, one he’ll continue finessing right up until the premiere if necessary. “That’s the process of creating a brand new musical.” Does it help that Crowley is also a film director (he made Brooklyn and has just finished an adaptation of The Goldfinch due for release later this year)? Pask reckons there might be cinematic influence on his take on Local Hero in the way he’s letting scenes bleed into one another. But he also thinks Crowley’s movie work has made him less interested in trying to replicate on stage what works visually in the film.
“The film world lends itself to representational naturalism: you can show the real world,” he says. “But when you step inside the proscenium of the theatre, we can step away from the naturalistic and explore the medium of storytelling.”