William Constable 1906 – 1989
- William Constable 1906 – 1989
William Constable 1906 – 1989
The sorcerer was William Henry Archibald Constable. He was born on 8 March 1906 in Bendigo, Victoria.
His first theatrical commission came in 1933: the cubist ‘stage decorations’ for the Gregan McMahon Players’ production of Bridie’s Jonah and the Whale at the Garrick in South Melbourne.
‘Bill Constable designed most of Borovansky’s sets,’ recalled dancer Barry Kitcher. ‘He andBorovansky had found each other at the right time in both their careers and they became very close friends. Over the years Constable made an enormous contribution to the Borovansky Company with his magnificent and imaginative set designs. He had a particular talent for creating an impressive sense of depth and distance in his backcloths. Paul Kathner tells how, as a young man, he trained under Constable. He said that Constable kept his paints warm by putting them in old chamber pots. Boro would often enter the scene dock to check on progress and jokingly referred to Paul as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.’
The sorcerer was William Henry Archibald Constable. He was born on 8 March 1906 in Bendigo, Victoria. It was there he received training in watercolour painting from Meta Townsend. In 1926 he abandoned an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer at the Jolimont railway workshops, to study at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. From there he went to London, sharing his time between study at St Martin’s School of Art and work ‘in some of London’s most advanced experimental theatres.’ He also provided illustrations for the magazine The Bystander.
Constable returned to Australia in 1930. His first theatrical commission came in 1933: the cubist ‘stage decorations’ for the Gregan McMahon Players’ production of Bridie’s Jonah and the Whale at the Garrick in South Melbourne. He designed several productions for New Theatre, including Catherine Duncan’s The Sword Sung in 1937, and for the fledgling Borovansky Ballet from 1940.
His first theatrical commission came in 1933: the cubist ‘stage decorations’ for the Gregan McMahon Players’ production of Bridie’s Jonah and the Whale at the Garrick in South Melbourne. The plays were directed by Alec Coppel, recently returned from London – as was actress Kathleen Robinson. When Robinson and Coppel’s Whitehall Productions became the resident company at David N. Martin’s Minerva Theatre in Kings Cross, Constable joined the team as resident designer. At the same time he designed for Peter Finch’s Mercury Theatre and Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in Sydney and for Borovansky in Melbourne. From 1941 until 1956 he designed some 20 ballets for Boro, including landmark productions like Terra Australis (1946), The Outlaw (1951), The Eternal Lovers (1952) and Corrida (1956). But the most striking and celebrated of his ballet designs was Corroboree, produced by Melbourne’s National Theatre Ballet in 1950; a reworked version retaining Constable’s set was the highlight of a gala performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the Sydney Tivoli in 1954 – the first time a reigning monarch set foot in an Australian theatre.
For Eugene Goossens, Constable designed several NSW State Conservatorium of Music opera productions, including Goossens’ own Judith, which introduced Joan Sutherland to staged opera. Constable espoused Goossens’ call for an opera house for Sydney, especially at Bennelong Point, and produced some preliminary concept designs. In 1951 he designed the sets for the National Opera of New South Wales’ inaugural season: Carmen, A Masked Ball and the Australian premiere of Il Seraglio. In 1955 he designed for the Peter Scriven puppets and created the settings for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s first production, Medea.
And then there was film. Constable was production designer for Long John Silver, which was shot in Sydney in 1954. He also worked on the subsequent television series The Adventures of Long John Silver. At Borovansky’s suggestion he returned to London. He was there from 1957 until 1973. Although he made a splash with his sets and costumes for London Festival Ballet’s London Morning, Noel Coward’s only ballet (1959), it was in film that Constable really made his mark. There were major productions such as The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), for which both he and Peter Finch won silver medallions at the Moscow International Film Festival, The Long Ships, filmed in Yugoslavia in 1963 and Lord Jim, shot in Cambodia in 1965. And there were his science fiction and horror films, many of which have achieved cult status: Taste of Fear, Dr Who and the Daleks, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The Deadly Bees, The Psychopath, The Skull, Torture Garden, They Came From Beyond Space, Scream and Scream Again… and so on.
In 1966 Constable came home briefly to design the Australian Opera’s Boris Godunov, its Australian premiere. His sets were generally criticised for their ‘seething colour’ and were replaced when the opera was revived in 1969.
Constable returned permanently in 1973. In Melbourne he designed one of the last St Martin’s productions, Rashomon, and J.C. Williamson’s commissioned him to design the house curtain for the rebuilt Her Majesty’s in Sydney. The result was superb: a vibrant ‘phoenix’ centrepiece created from carefully dyed cloth fragments.
Williamson’s then asked him to design their 1974 production of the musical Irene. Eventually, though, the show was designed by Kenneth Rowell.
From then on Constable concentrated on fine art, producing vibrant, evocative paintings of Central Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. He was still painting when he died in Melbourne on 22 August 1989.
Many of Constable’s designs are preserved in the Performing Arts Collection at the Victorian Arts Centre. The ‘phoenix’ curtain survived the demolition of Her Majesty’s, and now hangs in the in Queensland University of Technology’s Gardens Theatre. Constable’s most important legacy, however, is the generation of Australian theatre makers who admired and loved him, and to whom he passed on his vast knowledge and his deep love of theatre.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
William Constable: Flying Artist, Legend Press, 1952
Barry Kitcher: From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, Front Page, 2001
Frank Van Straten: ‘Bill Constable’, in Stages, December 1989
Pamela Zeplin: ‘William Constable’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995