Theatre behind glass
Looking for Hamlet in a theatre display? At the new Theatre and Performance Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, you can see the prompt book and skull (signed by the cast) from the Royal Court's 1980 production starring Jonathan Pryce. There are Edward Gordon Craig's boldly monolithic sketches for his set designs. Or, rather madly, a Hamlet-themed costume for the girlie floorshow in a London nightclub from the 1970s. It's a headdress, on which castle, ghost and skull have been affixed, giving a Shakespearean crown to the boobage below.
This gives you a sense of the V&A's approach. Replacing the late - but not greatly lamented - Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, the new displays are avowedly heterogeneous. They bypass chronology and artistic genres for a thematic approach - the process of making, staging and selling performance. Thematic hangs have provoked doubts in the fine arts (notably, in Britain, at the Tate), but work better in the context of the V&A, a museum of craft and design which is concerned with making.
The objects here are all interesting to look at, but were not created to be regarded in this sort of context. They are part of a process - and how do you convey a sense of their intended function, their 'real' life? It's a vast brief, and there's limited space in the galleries (and their sumptuous but subdued design). We get a generous selection of film clips (I didn't realise that the museum films around 10 productions each year - a montage of curtain calls was particularly nicely chosen). But the curators' key decision was to take us through every aspect of the performance process, and to admit all forms of entertainment, from Shakespeare to circus, ballet to stadium concert.
High and popular art rub together. Everyone needs rehearsal and finance, after all, and wears slap and costume. Everyone requires some kind of space to prepare - though few will be quite as fluffy as Kylie's dressing room, an explosion of strappy shoes and soft toys, with a fur-blanketed chair in front of the mirror to soothe the queen of pert. The juxtapositions are sometimes startling, but make sense. Baby Mozart sits next to Pink Floyd, saying something about the power of the prodigal and the spread of hype. As a friend noticed, typefaces recur across time and genre on the wall of posters - a Led Zeppelin ad looks not unlike that for Victorian magician Rubini and his 'beheading a lady' speciality act. And there are some lovely echoes in the costume display - both Brian Eno and Lady Bracknell (in Maggie Smith's outfit from a West End revival) brandish jet black feathers: the plumes militant.
The costumes make for the most spectacular exhibits, conveying the stage's love of fantasy. Poetic fantasy: Fonteyn's tutu, black as midnight. Cartoon fantasy: Gerald Scarfe's scarlet-horned Pluto from Orpheus in the Underworld. And then, in a carnivalesque category all her own, are two highlights from Dame Edna Everage's wardrobe - a vast oval hat crowned by a replica of the Sydney Opera House, and a frock bearing a generous serving of the great British breakfast (love the baked beans dripping round the décolletage).
Although fans of pretty will love these sections of the gallery, they are if anything too pristine. Apart from Richard Burton's battle-scarred jerkin from Henry V, you'd never guess these creations had ever been worn, or that they were fundamentally working clothes. It might have been fascinating to see some examples that have to be broken down to make them seem like clothes rather than costumes.
The display keeps an eye on finance (a delicious Edwardian costume sits next to the unforgiving account book). And it pays attention to censorship, including a glimpse of the Lord Chamberlian's feared blue pencil striking out smut, and the license for Joe Orton's Loot, heavily attended with provisos ('Omit "Shag their birds!"'). There are also some great examples of merchandising and souvenirs, with a particularly desirable showbiz board game ('Your name is very small on the posters: back to number 13').
Some of the displays speak to other parts of the V&A collection - of fashion, print, posters and photography, for example. You might say that these objects are all interesting as craft items, or as totems faintly bearing the spore of the theatre. But what about the theatricality? The art? I'm not sure that's possible.
Can a museum ever capture the spirit of the theatre? Should it even try? Has anyone seen a truly successful display?
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