Let's Talk About Sets: Gary McCann on La Cage aux Folles

The designer of the upcoming UK tour on what inspired him when working on the production

Ideologically subversive within a glittery rainbow-coloured package – La Cage aux Folles is surely a musical for our times. A Queer utopia within a fictionalised Saint Tropez comes under existential threat from a right-wing traditionalist politician whose star is in the ascendant. Conventional ideas of morality and family structure are challenged with pathos and humour in a French farce worthy of Molière.

Conceiving the visual world of the musical was a bit of a dream job for a stage designer. The producers wanted a sumptuous and extravagant set, and it was enjoyable imagining the look within a timeline of performance makers – I thought about the kind of work which would have inspired Georges and Albin and informed the performances they make – Érte, Ziegfeld’s Follies, Folies Bèrgere, and so on. Additional inspiration came from contemporary pictures of the Paris apartment belonging to fashion photographers Pierre et Gilles, the imagery of David Lachapelle, and my much-loved copy of Stephen Calloway’s book Baroque Baroque: The Culture of Excess.

For me the key location of the musical is the "Cage" club. Rather than being a form of prison, it is a sanctuary where homosexuality and transvestism are not only accepted, but rather are celebrated and revered. Correspondingly, the set design is dominated by an ornate false proscenium, which is decorated with filigree peacocks, gilded lilies, and miniature birdcages. I discovered quite quickly that the sets needed to facilitate the other locations had to be able to compete visually with the proscenium in terms of detail and finish, so Albin and Georges’ apartment is a riot of floral wallpaper and gold-framed male nude paintings, the scenes backstage feature a giant Nubian sculpture from an unseen Egyptian extravaganza, and Jacqueline’s restaurant is decorated with stained glass windows containing sunflower and bee motifs. Overall the aesthetic sits somewhere between Art Nouveau and Rococo.

There were two major challenges – firstly the musical jumps frequently from location to location. It took a lot of consideration to find the best way possible for us to flow effortlessly from scene to scene. Secondly, this will be the first time the musical has toured the UK – and we’ve all worked hard to make the design practical on a weekly turnaround.

From a personal perspective the process has provoked some interesting observations – I’m certainly grateful to have benefited from the fact that the arts and theatre continue to welcome sexual diversity, and provide a haven for self-expression and experimentation. The conflict we see in the story between hard-won freedoms and creeping political conservatism is as relevant as ever. Za Za’s defiant "I Am What I Am" has not in my lifetime seemed quite so relevant as it does today.

by Gary McCann

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La Cage aux Folles opens at the New Theatre Oxford from 5 January 2017, before touring the UK to London, Dublin, Norwich, Canterbury, Cardiff, Malvern, Nottingham, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Leeds and more.