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One of Melbourne's best set designers brings WA mining country to the stage

Written by
Ben Neutze
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Melbourne-based theatre designer Marg Horwell may have grown up in Wagga Wagga, but she’s not what you’d call a country person.

“Even just going for the weekend to the country is actually a terrifying thing, and nature is a terrifying thing,” she says. “Sometimes I go to the hot springs, but honestly I feel like if I stayed in a hotel right in the middle of the city I’d be much happier.”

Horwell’s city-slicker attitude makes her, in a way, the right person to design the titular house in Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Playwright Patricia Cornelius has adapted the play, transporting Lorca’s tale of a family of women mourning the death of their patriarch from 1930s Spain to rural Western Australia today. That’s given Horwell a chance to explore all that scares her about Australia’s most remote places.

“We’ve looked up things like bat plagues and rat plagues, crazy fire and weather conditions in the middle of nowhere in outback Western Australia,” she says of her research process. “It feels like the most inhospitable place to stoically set up your old colonial house and stick it out no matter what.”

Cornelius’s version is set during a scorching summer in mining country, where four sisters are called back home after their father’s death. One of them stands to inherit a fortune, which causes inevitable tensions inside a bunker-like house that’s both an unlikely sanctuary against the outside world and a place that traps its inhabitants in uncomfortably close quarters.

Marg Horwell's costume designs for The House of Bernarda Alba

One of Horwell’s earliest visual inspirations for the show was bird netting, which is used in rural areas to ensnare and kill snakes. The image of the netting – which serves as a pretty clear metaphor for the characters’ situation – has survived Horwell’s editing process, breaking the design down to its essential elements.

“I started off with very clear references of exact spaces where it would exist, then we kind of merged all those elements into one and then stripped it all back so it felt bottomed out and lonely. It was epic and intimate all at once.”

At the centre of the design is a big chandelier of insect zappers hanging in a dining room, giving off an eerie blue fish-and-chip shop glow. As it buzzes away, bugs are lured, electrocuted and littered across the table.

Joining that buzz is the whir of around 15 loud, leaking airconditioners fighting against the oppressive heat. And at several points there’s the sound of a horny bull bashing against the side of the house, waiting to be unchained and let loose on a herd of cows.

“As we’ve been working, we’ve discovered the most important thing is what you can’t see,” Horwell says. “We’re making an internal place, and what’s most important is everything we want to imply: everything outside, surrounding the space and pushing into the space.”

Horwell is one of Australia’s most acclaimed theatre designers, and she says her style tends to either be either very minimal or stuffed with contemporary reference upon contemporary reference.

At one end of the scale is her work with Cornelius (her design for Cornelius’s play Shit  featured a single, large, thick concrete wall with three windows cut into it) and Leticia Caceres, who directs The House of Bernarda Alba (her design for Caceres’s production of Cock was a bare stage, covered in hundreds of plain white pillows that were arranged into different formations). At the other end of the scale is her work with artists like queer theatre duo Sisters Grimm (Summertime in the Garden of Eden featured a veritable explosion of white tulle and cotton, American kitsch and more crochet than you could poke a stick at).

The set for The House of Bernarda, which she’s been involved in the development of right from the very start, falls somewhere between the minimal and maximal perspectives, but it is in a way emblematic of Horwell’s style.

“I’m never the person that you would ask to do the loungeroom drama,” she says. “I never get asked to do that, and I think in the last few years I’ve only done one show that hasn’t been an adaptation or a new work. I always get asked to do the things that say ‘set nowhere’ or ‘there is no set’.”

Five of Marg Horwell's greatest set designs

1. Summertime in the Garden of Eden – Sisters Grimm and Griffin Theatre Company (2013)

 2. SHIT – MTC Neon (2015)

3. La Traviata – Sisters Grimm and Belvoir (2015) 

 4. The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man – Malthouse Theatre (2017)

5. Animal – InFlux Theatre and Theatre Works (2016)

The House of Bernarda Alba is at Arts Centre Melbourne from May 25 to July 7.

Check out our hit-list of the best theatre in Melbourne this month.

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