Goodbye to all flat

Earlier this autumn, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon came out in front of the curtain at Sadler's Wells in London to introduce his company Morphoses. (Why don't more artistic directors do this? It's totally endearing, and gives an audience who hasn't had a chance to read the programme notes a few reassuring direction signs.) Talking about his new work, Commedia, Wheeldon explained that the satiny pierrot costumes and silky cartoon backdrop (designed by Isabel and Ruben Toldeo) had all been carried to London by the company members, folded away in their luggage.

It was an attractive image, one that fitted Commedia and its suggestion of an itinerant troupe of players. Pack up the luggage, tra la la, as Sondheim's actress heroine sighs in A Little Night Music. Hi-ho, the glamorous life.

But it's really only ballet that could get away with this sort of portability. In Britain and western Europe, we've been living through an age of statement design for theatre and opera. Big objects, bulky with quirk or portent, have been familiar intrusions on the stage. Imagine trying to squeeze the vast leathery rhinoceros from the recent Royal Court production of Ionesco's play into your hand baggage, or cramming the portentous revolving door from the National Theatre's Oedipus into an overhead locker. Other productions create entire environments - like Tom Piper's rusting permanent set for the RSC's Histories cycle (England as a machine running down), or site-specific projects in which the building (an abandoned office block, a burger bar, the British Museum) is the pull.

It has been a while since stage design was closely allied with painting and the foldable branches of the visual arts. I've been reading a fine survey of the career of British writer, illustrator and cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster, who was also a successful stage designer in the mid-20th century. Cartoons and Coronets is written and selected by James Knox, and accompanies an exhibition running at the Wallace Collection in London until 11 January, and the section on his stage work makes clear the connection between paper and proscenium. Lancaster was a master of the largely lost art of the backcloth - the book includes appetising views of Algiers, Galicia and a fudge-coloured Florence for All's Well That Ends Well.

More on Lancaster and 2D-design after the click:

Lancaster was a celebrated architectural illustrator and historian, and brought the same qualities to his stage work: impeachable period detail with a humorous gleam. He was inevitably pressed into service for comedy - notably by the Old Vic (Sheridan and Shakespeare), Glyndebourne (Falstaff and The Rake's Progress) and Sadler's Wells Ballet (Coppélia and Ashton's La Fille Mal gardée). His backdrops create a heightened reality, but not too heightened - Knox notes Lancaster worrying that his 1955 Falstaff sets might resemble the currently fashionable 'Stockbrokers' Tudor': 'the more correctly period the furnishings of Ford's house, the stronger the feeling that the Southern Electric will whisk him to the Stock Exchange first thing on Monday morning.'

Lancaster's costumes too are distilled versions of his cartoons and illustrations, with their keen eye for fashion minutiae. After seeing All's Well at the Old Vic in 1953, Cecil Beaton wrote to congratulate him, adding 'clever of you to make everyone look like one of your drawings.'

Ballet needs to clear room for dancing, so the backdrop clings on. Even here, choreographers and artists explore other means of playing two-dimensional design against palpable human bodies. Infra, Wayne McGregor's new piece for the Royal Ballet, is backed by an electronic screen displaying Julian Opie's moving stick figures, while To Be Straight With You by DV8 pulls out all kinds of whizzy graphics.

Have painterly backdrops gone for ever? It's become rare to see a really mouth-watering flat - the best example that comes to mind is Pinocchio, designed for the studio theatre at the Royal Opera House by filmmakers the Brothers Quay. This was choreographer William Tuckett's dark version of the classic tale, and Stromboli's circus for naughty truants was backed by a stuff-of-nightmares curtain. It brandished a leering washed-out clown, head askew, with tubular arms reaching out to the wayward little scamps. As the kids turned into donkeys, the curtain pulled back to reveal a glue factory. Perhaps we've lost our belief in sunny flat enchantment; for the Quays, a flat design encapsulates a perilous nostalgia that's just waiting to bite us.

November 24, 2008 10:09 AM | | Comments (1) |


all the theatre design histories point out that painted set flats were originally and for a long time predicated on realistic perspective as the sexiest of illusions, and that the point of perspective — in fact, the vanishing point of perspective — was who got the best view of it. the european 16th century borrowing of perspective from painting assumed that just one pair of eyes in the audience — the king, the most senior nobleman, the bill-payer anyway — had the perfect view: he'd be seated exactly centre opposite the vanishing point, and at the same elevation — the royal box was raised from the ground at the same height as the players on the stage, behind but above whatever seating was in the stalls/pit. so the players were a little distance away and could be regarded as part of the picture. the idea that the best seats in the house are in he front row of the stalls, nearest the sweaty feet of the actors, is rather newer. if you've watched a painted-flat semi-realist performance — or painted either those flats, or models of them — then you realise that the far-outer flanks of the tiered balconies, and even of the side stalls, get a view far more spacially distorted than the skew-whiffery in holbein's ambassors. prejudices you against flatland. but then, think of the russian ballets in which the backcloths and drops became enormous artists' canvases (realism and perspective abandoned), so that dancers were performing inside a different kind of painting.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on November 24, 2008 10:09 AM.

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