Talking with Tony Walton
Renowned designer-director Tony Walton reunites with Shaw in the Asolo Rep's The Devil's Disciple.
By Kay Kipling
Tonight’s Asolo Rep opening of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple is one more connection in a long history between director-designer Tony Walton and the famed Irish-born playwright.
Walton has directed the play before, for the Irish Rep, but beyond that, he says he’s always had a special affinity for Shaw. (Maybe that’s partly because, as he says, “My dad was his last doctor. I never met Shaw, but as kids we sort of used to peer around the gate, you know.”) When he spoke to a group of Asolo donors recently, he says, “One of them said he’d seen the last four Shaw plays done here and was bored by them. I said, ‘Perhaps they left the fun out.’ Shaw loved to have fun. It reminds me so much of Chekhov; his plays are meant to be comedies, but so often they’re not done that way. I think Shaw gives us the license to adapt his work a little, because he did that so much himself.”
To that end, Walton has trimmed The Devil’s Disciple, Shaw’s only play set in America and one first performed on Broadway with a cast of more than 130 (including two bands!), both in length and in cast size (15 actors will take to the Asolo stage). But he thinks the play, set during the American Revolution in 1777, will continue to bear relevance to today’s audiences.
“In the play, of course, the troops involved are the British troops, and they’re the bullies, just as some other countries have perceived American troops in Iraq,” says the British-born director. “And the power of the religious right wing in the recent past is definitely comparable to the sort of religious authority issues in The Devil’s Disciple.”
Talking with Walton in the Asolo’s green room, it’s tempting to stray off topic of the Shaw play, though, because, with about 60 years in the business, Walton (who comes across as warm and likable) is a font of theater and film stories, having worked with seemingly everyone worth knowing. He started out wanting to be an actor, he says, but quickly became self-conscious onstage and decided to work behind the scenes instead. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he designed for both New York and London stages, winning Tony nods for his set and costume designs in a career ranging from Pippin to Chicago to House of Blue Leaves onstage, first entering the world of motion pictures as costume designer for Mary Poppins (which starred ex-wife Julie Andrews) and snagging an Oscar for All That Jazz.
But he plunged into the world of directing after making a remark in an interview with New York film critic John Simon that, if he were ever offered the chance to direct, he’d choose Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore quickly got in touch, he says, “saying ‘I’m calling your bluff.’ So I did it, with an amazing cast that included Eileen Heckart and Eric Stoltz. You know, as a designer you have to think as a director anyway, to create a geography that will make the story interesting. But I do find, when wearing these different hats, that the designer and the director will sometimes disagree with one another.”
Walton says he found with the Asolo repertory cast in Disciple that, “As expected, you get some people who are ideally cast and some that are not obvious. But in the process of rehearsing, we found that the people who were not obvious at first brought fresh colors to the piece. I don’t believe anyone will think any actor here is miscast.”
Walton lives in New York City (on Broadway, of course) and says he has no plans to find a home in Sarasota (he worked here previously designing A Tale of Two Cities). But he adds that he would love to work at the Asolo again. Next up, though, a long-awaited New York production of the musical Busker Alley, and working on a new movie with film legend Sidney Lumet. No retirement plans loom, either. “I’m a theater critter,” Walton says. “I don’t think I could ever quit.”