Highland Fling designer Lez Brotherston sits down with writer Graeme Virtue to talk about all things tartan.
Famously, Highland Fling begins in a gents toilet. Even after almost two decades, that unexpected relocation of La Sylphide — the world’s oldest surviving romantic ballet — to the cludgie of a Scottish social club seems radical, almost transgressive. But for Lez Brotherston, the award-winning designer responsible for the sets and costumes of the original 1994 production, it wasn’t conceived as a provocation. “It never felt radical,” he says. “It just felt right for the story.”
Highland Fling was Brotherston’s first collaboration with choreographer Matthew Bourne, an ongoing creative relationship that spans the landmark all-male Swan Lake in 1995 and an acclaimed reworking of Sleeping Beauty in 2012. There was a spark, a certain sense of simpatico, between the two from the very beginning.
“Before then, I’d always worked with choreographers who were older or more established than I was,” remembers Brotherston. “But suddenly, with Matt, it was an equal footing. We were of a similar age and we shared a similar interest in film, particularly British film, and it turned out we had a similar sense of humour. So we could talk about the possibility of setting La Sylphide in a toilet or in a club. Whereas back then, if I was talking to the Royal Opera House it would never occur to me to even suggest something like that.”
At this point, Brotherston had never seen the original. “It wasn’t being produced much back then, so the classic La Sylphide wasn’t something I started from or looked at,” he says. “Obviously, the structure in our modern version is very similar, but the only real nod in terms of design is that Madge — who was an old witch in the original and is a tarot card reader in ours — is deliberately a little darker and more gothic than everyone else.”
If the contemporary setting was attention-grabbing, Brotherston’s designs were just as eye-catching, a visual explosion of kilts and (sometimes literally) wall-to-wall tartan. For a costume designer, the kilt can be a useful piece of kit. “It doesn’t inhibit the dancer, it’s liberating,” says Brotherston. “Although the sporrans are a little lighter and more padded to cope with all that jumping!”
During Highland Fling’s frenzied wedding scene, the plaid really comes out in force. “I remember initially I tried to co-ordinate all the tartan and make it feel as one, but you can’t do that, really,” says Brotherston. “Everyone at the wedding is wearing a different tartan, some of them more than one. It’s a complete riot and that’s the fun of it.”
The film adaptation of Trainspotting was released two years after Highland Fling, and while they were very different beasts, both presented a reinvigorated sense of Scottishness to the wider world, one that was anarchic, hedonistic and fashionable. They also seemed to share an awareness of traditional Scots stereotypes and an accompanying irreverence toward them.
Highland Fling’s most elaborate set is crammed with Caledonian signifiers, a collection of couthy bric-a-brac that complements the heightened reality of the story. “We decided to pack as many Scottish stereotypes in there as possible,” laughs Brotherston. “Whether it was Brigadoon playing on the telly, or a Bay City Rollers record case or a can of McEwan’s Export on the mantle, or football scarves, or flags…”
In a flat where every wall and surface is decorated with tartan wallpaper, there are also framed pictures of notable Scots from all walks of life, almost a shrine. “Those portraits have changed over the years,” says Brotherston, “and that’s an exciting part of coming up to look at the set as it’s being refurbished for this production. I can spot gaps or opportunities and we can put more things in there.”
If you’re looking for recognisable Scots, they don’t come much more famous than Sean Connery, and a previous production of Highland Fling featured a portrait of the world’s favourite former milkman. Rather than in his iconic 1960s role of James Bond, Connery was pictured in his flamboyant, rather foppish costume from the 1986 fantasy movie Highlander. It’s a film with an unexpected significance for Brotherston.
“When I was studying at Central School of Art and Design, I also used to work for a costume prop maker so I could afford to live in London,” he recalls. “He was a fantastic man called Martin Adams, and the list of films he worked on was incredible: The Last Emperor, Young Sherlock Holmes, Brazil. One of the first projects I worked on with him was Highlander. So I actually made Sean Connery’s earring.
Of the many productions he has worked on, both in collaboration with Bourne and other companies, Brotherston will tell you he cannot possibly choose a favourite. But Highland Fling is “always going to be special”, even if this cheeky remix of a romantic classic seemed like a potentially risky move at the time.
“In 1994, I was working with the National Theatre and Opera North, so going off to do this show with a small company for no budget might have looked like a step backwards,” he says. “But it was so fantastic and liberating, and I made friends that I’m still working with almost 20 years later. It was a genuinely formative experience, and it’s nice to return to it. And it’s equally nice that Highland Fling is now going to have another life with Scottish Ballet.”