Jon Bausor – the ‘bat’ man raising hell at the London Coliseum
Bat Out of Hell turns a venerable London stage into a dystopian nightmare. Its designer tells Nick Smurthwaite how he drew on influences from Wagner to Trump to create the epic set – his most challenging job since working on the Paralympics opening ceremony
For a show that’s been hovering in the wings for more than 40 years, Bat Out of Hell feels surprisingly here and now. This is in no small way thanks to the work of Jon Bausor, whose spectacular designs are more typical of Wembley Arena than London Coliseum.
In his review, The Stage’s Tim Bano compared the Meat Loaf-inspired musical to “a huge 1980s arena gig but smeared in post-apocalyptic grime, like a comic book come to life”. Mark Lawson, in the Guardian, said it felt “like being in the fast lane of the M1 with juggernauts thundering over your soul”.
Having been through a number of fruitless permutations over four decades, producers David Sonenberg, Michael Cohl, Randy Lennox and Tony Smith finally brought the show to the stage of the Manchester Opera House last year, with award-winning director Jay Scheib in the driving seat and a crack artistic team at his disposal.
Bausor, who designed the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Paralympics, was delighted to be asked to come on board in 2015, not least because he studied dystopian literature at university.
He says: “This was a dream come true for me. It had an epic, dystopian grandeur the like of which I hadn’t ever imagined in design terms. I listened to Wagner, I watched John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and I watched all the old Meat Loaf videos.
“The original title for the show was Neverland, because Jim Steinman intended it to be a futuristic rock version of Peter Pan – and as it happened I’d just done Peter Pan at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre when I was asked to design this show.”
Bausor worked on the show throughout Donald Trump’s campaign for president. It was such an all-consuming event that it even seeped into his design in the form of a huge Trump-like tower block looming over the action.
While not exactly Hamlet in the plot department, the show is distinguished by Jim Steinman’s rock-operatic score, a raft of high-energy performances and, of course, Bausor’s spectacular sets and effects.
“The music is so massive it needed to look and feel operatic,” says Bausor, who trained on the Motley Theatre design course. “In a way the music gives you licence to go over the top with the design. At the same time it had to make sense of the story.”
After its first outing in Manchester in March 2016, Bat Out of Hell transferred to the London Coliseum – traditionally the home of grand opera – in June 2017 to the astonishment of some of the venue’s regulars.
Bausor says: “At first, I thought the idea of going there was a little mad, but, on reflection, the epic scale of the music and the Wagnerian ambition suited Frank Matcham’s ‘people’s palace’ very well. There was always going to be some sniffiness from opera buffs, but, at a time when opera is being accused of being expensive and elitist, I think it is a good thing that English National Opera is sharing its home with a different crowd.”
“Everything felt quite tight in Manchester because the Opera House stage is 5 metres narrower than the Coliseum’s, and much shallower. I had to expand it all for London.
“Technically, it was the most challenging thing I’d done since the opening ceremony for the Paralympics in 2012. I used a lot of things I’d learned on that for this job. I wanted some dramatic scene-change moments: a car appears at one point and falls off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit. The audience recoils in shock, then you see four members of the orchestra climb out of the pit, clutching various broken instruments.”
The show’s most spectacular effect comes at the end of the first half when a Harley Davidson – there are three altogether – explodes at the climax of the title song.
The inspiration for it, Bausor says, was from the song: “Then I’m down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun / Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike / And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell / And the last thing I see is my heart / Breaking out of my body and flying away.”
The designer says: “It took me a while to work out how to do it. Everyone said the motorbike scene was good in Manchester but I always thought it was lacking something.
“After the run finished in Manchester, the producers asked me if there was anything I’d like to change for London. So I said I’d like to explode the bike into space and see it fall in slow motion and then re-form. They all said it was too ambitious and there wasn’t enough space to do it.”
Undeterred, Bausor brainstormed the idea with the effects wizards Flying by Foy who used a similar technique to realise the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
“I also did a similar thing in Ghost Stories (2010), when we experimented with flying ghosts into the auditorium, although it never actually made it into the show. Basically, for Bat Out of Hell, we used high-speed, motorised fishing reels to project component parts of the motorbike into the air. The objects are very thin – made from foam covered in fibreglass – and very aerodynamic, so they cut through the air like blades.”
The coup de grace is that the various fragments spat out in the explosion magically re-form themselves into a giant heart shape in mid-air.
Bausor says: “Working it out on the computer, using Photoshop, was a bit like throwing a bunch of pencils on the floor and hoping they would arrange themselves into the face of Jesus. I have to say it is a bit of a showstopper, and always gets a round of applause.”
It is clearly one of those theatrical moments nobody who sees it will forget, and is testament to Bausor’s refusal to let go of his creative vision.
“I’m a total perfectionist,” he admits. “I’m also very driven, which is mostly bad. It’s hard to sleep when you’re turning something over in your head. You’re always trying to make things better, and come up with better solutions. I’m pleased to say that I’m finally happy with Bat Out of Hell now.”
Even at his level of distinction, stage designers are notorious for taking on too many jobs at once. Is that a problem for Bausor?
“For me, it is useful to do a number of different things at once because it stops me obsessing about one particular thing. Also, you often find one job informs another. It can be an exhausting business if you’re working on a show from its inception right through to the first previews. Designers are often expected to do too much. However, if I’m just doing one job I can get stuck and self-obsessed.”
Bausor’s diary has work stretching into 2019, including the new Take That musical, The Nutcracker in Norway, a new Simon Stephens play, The Grinning Man (transferring from Bristol to London) and a revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in Japan.
Just as he started out assisting the likes of John Napier and Es Devlin, Bausor has taken on a succession of young assistants, notably Rebecca Brower who worked closely with him on Bat Out of Hell and is about to branch out on her own after five years with Bausor.
He is concerned that many of today’s stage design courses are oversubscribed, with sometimes as many as 30 students in a year. “When I trained at Motley, there were 10 of us, and we had experienced designers coming in and out all the time. It was intense and rigorous.”
His other concern is that stage design often feels too exclusive a field of endeavour. “It tends to be people from wealthier middle-class backgrounds who stay the course because it is so difficult to get established. It is an area that would benefit hugely from more young people coming into it who haven’t seen a lot of theatre, coming to design with a fresh eye.”
CV: Jon Bausor
Born: 1977, Coventry
Training: University of Oxford; Exeter College of Art; Motley Theatre design course
Career: Associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company (2013-present)
Landmark productions: Opening ceremony, Paralympic Games, London (2012); Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company (2012); The Nutcracker, Norwegian National Ballet (2016); The James Plays, National Theatre of Scotland (2015-16)
Awards: UK Theatre award and Welsh Theatre award for best design for Mametz, National Theatre of Wales (2014)
Agent: Sally Hope Associates
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