Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Prague Scenography Quadrennial 2003

PQ, for those not as yet in the know, is short hand for the four-yearly international festival of Scenography, held in the beautiful Czech capital Pra

PQ, for those not as yet in the know, is short hand for the four-yearly international festival of Scenography, held in the beautiful Czech capital Prague. Centred at a huge exhibition in the Industrial Palace Vystaviste, PQ also offers workshops, conferences, performances and seminars, although you’d need to be there the whole two and a half weeks to catch it all. All aspects of theatre design are represented from Shakespearean costume to design-led installation, and puppetry to architecture, all exhibited country by country, with both student and professional sections.

Czech Republic’s 2003 Theatre Architecture exhibit concentrated on the devastating effect of last year’s severe flooding to the many beautiful theatres of Prague. Despite being surrounded by many impressive architectural models for new theatres around the world, the striking images of Prague underwater held a morbid attraction and stole a lot of attention. Photographs and a video showed damaged music archives and a smashed piano, victim to the extreme force of the rain-swollen Vltava River. The most enduring image was that of a technician paddling in a dingy around an auditorium flooded up as high as the circle seats, trying to rescue any salvageable equipment. The city itself however seems to have recovered well, and is back playing host to thousands of tourists and theatre lovers.

Estonia’s piece in the professional section focussed on the design for the Eurovision Song Contest. I noticed that the political sabotage of the UK’s sound equipment and dressing room (in protest against the recent war on Iraq) hadn’t been story-boarded in, but then of course I remembered that this year’s Contest was held in Latvia!

The third thing I noticed about PQ is how easy it is to spot those countries whose Arts are healthily funded. Taiwan, for example, contributed a kind of roofless ‘pagoda’ space, complete with Eastern gravel garden underneath raised glass viewing platforms and bridge, with stairs leading up to a second level, with in-set models and back-lit duratrans images, even video screens. Not only had they spent serious money and effort on the exhibit but the work itself ranged from traditional opera right through to contemporary dance.

Russia too presented a typically impressive exhibit, proudly showing to the world the same national pride in their heritage so evident in the recent film Russian Ark, with a replica of the pannier wedding dress worn by 1740s empress Catherine the Great – and that was just the student section. By contrast the students of Egypt offered untreated hardboard walls with shoddily hung drawings, and the name of the country and college scrawled badly in half-dead black marker pen.

This inconsistency in standard throughout the show is hard to control as each component is transported from its native country. Although this level of variation may not be considered good curating, it somehow makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. Such variety and ‘haphazardness’ becomes a refreshing alternative from the corporate looking exhibits produced by some countries that make PQ look more like a trade fair and an attempt to promote their colleges or position in the international culture ‘hierarchy’. Of course, PQ is a competition as well as an exhibition so some are bound to try (too hard) to impress.

Contrastingly, some exhibits concentrated more on the interior world of the designer, resulting outcomes existing as much for their own sake as for relating to a particular text, story or dance. The colour, texture, sound, light and physically interactive installation offered by New Zealand may seem a bit woolly or whimsical to some, but nevertheless, ‘play’ (like the obsession with putting small items into boxes or cases) is a fundamental, integral and un-suppressible aspect of the designer psyche, and where better to openly display and explore this phenomenon than PQ?

Sometimes the method of display detracts from the work itself, and a recurrent mistake throughout the exhibition was to present a lot, even too much information and in a confusing way. In a show the size of PQ, viewing should be made as easy and clear as possible. The British stand excelled at this: the understated, simple black walls, pristinely mounted images and in-set models somehow seemed quintessentially ‘British’ amongst all the other international exhibits. The work selected was presented in five sub-themes: Symbolic statements; Framing the figure in space; The performance environment; Come into my world and Animation: illumination. This conveyed a more accurate sense of the ideas and concerns of currently successful design practitioners in the UK than the conventional approach to exhibiting work ie: design drawings, model-box, then photographs of realised work and costumes on mannequins, for every project. Paul Brown’s fantastic design for the ‘site-specific’ production of The Tempest at the flooded and semi-derelict, mid-refurbishment Almeida Theatre in London a few years ago turned a difficult situation into a deliberate design statement and conceptually sound interpretation of the play and its themes. The problem of finding space for housing productions has been fully and artistically exploited by the Almeida team during their homeless period (creating alternative, temporary ‘site-specific’ spaces in King’s Cross), a practice not demonstrated in any of the other countries’ exhibits.

Theatre-Wales readers may be concerned that no Welsh work was represented in this section but the Society of British Theatre Designers selected the work from last year’s 2D>3D exhibition. As Wales has probably barely half the number of producing houses and companies of London it is really of little surprise.

However, Welsh College of Music and Drama were represented in the British Schools exhibit in the student section. Housed in a circular enclosure formed of tall white panels, the costume designs and models were confusingly arranged so that it was not easy to tell which work was from which school, and some of the models were at awkward angles and slightly too high for the likes of me to be able to see into. Also the work only extended so far up the wall panels making an untidy waste of space, as did the sketch-books apparently chucked on the surface around the perimeter – I bet there were tears at damaged and possibly stolen pages by the end of PQ. Bordering on the cringe-worthy however was a video of various students talking about the importance and value of work experience, I mean talk about stating the obvious. Certain colleges with highly regarded reputations confirmed my suspicions that they run on nepotism by choosing to send sub-exhibition standard work which definitely was not representative of the true standard of work their students generally produce even in second year.

Of the student exhibits prizes should go to Korea for their immaculate, fantastic (and alarmingly skilled) work, and cohesive and beautiful presentation, with animated figures and objects, models intelligently hung upside-down above head height and horizontally so they could be seen fully, and interesting text about the challenging process of combining so many individuals’ work into one show.

Overall, the joy of PQ for me is the very different ways each country chooses to present their work, which seems to not only underline the differences between each nation’s individual style but also emphasises the unique nature of every participating culture, and I look forward to the World Stage Design festival in Toronto 2005.

author:Zoe Hewett

original source:
10 August 2003


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