John Truscott AO 1936-1993

John Truscott

Helped by a gift of £2,000 raised through a testimonial fund established by Irene Mitchell, John Truscott headed for London.

Jack Warner commissioned him to design the film version of Camelot, which was to star Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris and Franco Nero.

Truscott returned to Australia in 1978. He designed Idomeneo for the Victoria State Opera and The Pearl Fishers in 1979.

 

Helped by a gift of £2,000 raised through a testimonial fund established by Irene Mitchell, John Truscott headed for London. His lack of formal qualifications precluded study at the Slade School of Art – though later he joined the staff! His first London challenge was his second CamelotRobert Helpmann’s 1964 production for Jack Hylton at the mighty Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. After that came the Ravel opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges for Sadler’s Wells (1965), Swan Lake for London’s Festival Ballet (1965), and the play Kain with Keith Michell, at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (1966).

Next came the call to Hollywood. Jack Warner commissioned him to design the film version of Camelot, which was to star Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris and Franco Nero. It was an enormous project. The Great Hall set took up almost an entire soundstage, and was one of the largest indoor sets built to that time. At the 1968 Academy Awards, Truscott won two Oscars, one for his design, the other for his art direction, a unique double for an Australian. Truscott’s next project was Paramount’s Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin (1969). There was little in Hollywood for him after that, though he worked briefly on The Great Gatsby.

Truscott returned to Australia in 1978. He designed Idomeneo for the Victoria State Opera and The Pearl Fishers in 1979. George Fairfax, the former director of St Martin’s who was now heading the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee, approached Truscott with an enormous challenge: the design of the interiors of the Victorian Arts Centre’s Melbourne Concert Hall. The building was nearing completion, and he had to work extremely quickly. With its splendid red and gold foyers and glistening cave-like auditorium, it opened in 1982. Truscott’s contract was extended to cover the interiors of the adjacent Theatres Building, which opened in 1984. This included not only the spectacular State Theatre, the more intimate Playhouse, and a ‘black box’ Studio for experimental work, but also many foyer areas, a gallery space, function rooms and a restaurant – each with its own special character. He enhanced the public areas with personally selected and often commissioned Aboriginal and contemporary Australian art – the largest such collection to be seen outside a public gallery. All this Truscott accomplished in just four years, often relying on theatrical techniques to generate an inviting ambience of splendour and excitement and a palpable sense of occasion.

Truscott’s last theatre commission came in 1983 – a Victoria State Opera staging of Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah in the Melbourne Concert Hall. He completed an elaborate set model and many costume designs, but artistic disagreements and budget over-runs resulted in the company handing over the project to Kenneth Rowell.

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Biographical references

Martin Carlson and Margaret Manion: ‘The Truscott Legacy’, in On Stage, volume 2, numbers 1 & 2
Paul Clarkson: Melbourne International Arts Festival, 1986-2005, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2005
Sue Nattrass: ‘A Tribute to John Truscott,’ in the commemorative booklet published by the Victorian Arts Centre, 1993
Frank Van Straten: A John Truscott Chronology, unpublished manuscript, 1995
Pamela Zeplin: ‘John Truscott’, in Companion to Theatre in AustraliaCurrency Press, 1995