Theatre in Wales

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Exhilarating Feast of Theatre Design

“Transformation and Revelation”- Exhibition

The Society of British Theatre Designers , RWCMD, Cardiff , April-09-11
“Transformation and Revelation”- Exhibition by The Society of British Theatre Designers The University of Lund in Southern Sweden has a unique collection. Its Museum of Sketches is devoted to sketches, preliminary work and models for public works of art. It is a beautiful, tranquil place to visit. The works on display are not the end thing but they are deeply satisfying in their own right. This huge and stimulating exhibition put me in mind of it.

The Society of British Theatre Designers holds exhibitions every four years. For the previous ten exhibitions London, of course, has dominated. Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester have hosted one each. It is the good fortune of Cardiff that the potential was seen to make use of the Royal College’s new development before its completion in the summer. The exterior may be a wall of scaffolding but the interior is a feast of visual treats.

The first surprise is the sheer extent. Models, photographs, sketches, props, puppets, the occasional costume are on display from two hundred designers, architects and consultants. Theatre audiences are becoming more expressive- the standing ovation is no longer a rarity- but it is still a rare set that earns a round of applause in its own right. But it does happen and many of the exhibits here are beautiful artefacts in their own right.

The Bregenz Festival in Austria has a tradition of astounding designs. Its 2000 production for “A Masked Ball” had a giant skeleton rising out of the water. It is one of those images where the physical impact of the real thing is beyond imagining. The first exhibit here comes from David Pountney's 2010 production of “Die Passagierin.” The action of the novel, also the source for Andrzej Munk’s great although unfinished film of 1963, is split between a concentration camp and an ocean liner. Johan Engels' split-level design for Bregenz amazingly achieves just that.

Wales is represented by Mold's regulars. Mark Bailey's design for Tim Baker's 2008 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has Athens transformed to fairyland with the falling of a hundred thousand leaves. Sean Crowley's work for Theatr Genedlaethol's powerful 2008 “Y Pair” is here.

Max Jones is represented by Kate Wasserberg's “Dancing at Lughnasa” of last Autumn and Philip Breen's 2008 “Measure for Measure.” The exhibition has a letter in which Terry Hands writes a nice aphorism for the relationship between design and production. Of Max Jones he says “Max has never given what was asked for. It has always been what was needed.”

Financial stringency in the world of opera means a chorus of thirty rather than fifty. Some of the sets here evoke what must have been glorious experiences. Christopher Oram's “Billy Budd” for Glyndebourne 2010 recreates the interior of a man o'war in all its claustrophobia. Es Devlin's “Faust”, Gounod not Goethe, for Dresden last year is all spirals, prisms and revolving mirrors.

But design is imagination and vastness of budget is not everything (although nice to have without a doubt.) Two of the best small venues are represented in Richard Foxton's work for “Loot” at Hull Truck and another haunting “Midsummer Night's Dream” for Keswick's Theatre by the Lake.

In truth the exhibition is so full as to be beyond description. It travels, but only in part, to represent Britain at the Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition this summer. A selection of designs will be on display at the V&A March-September 2012 but only Cardiff gets the whole thing.

As a venue there are tantalising glimpses of what is to be unveiled in the summer. Polythene sheets may flap in the breeze against the new windows. But a high white interior can be seen. Spring sunlight comes in at an angle. And only at the RWCMD would an exhibition come with background music of a young tenor voice in practice.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue. It starts with a pithy quotation from Philip Pullman and an eloquent introduction by curator Peter Farley. The catalogue's production is by Blattler Ltd.

In a slightly Russian-oligarch-ish way of seeing an exhibition what would I walk out with if offered the choice? A tough decision but one hand would grab John McFarlane’s 2010 design for Prokoviev’s “Cinderella” at the Birmingham Hippodrome. The curfew of the midnight hour is indicated by a giant clock with its ratcheted innards all on display.

The other hand would reach out for Conor Murphy's set for Thomas Ades' “Powder her Face” at the Linbury 2008. A figure at an open door looks down a staircase at a giant lipstick tube and powder compact.

If allowed a third piece, tucked under my arm, it would be the photograph of Paul Edwards' re-imagined hotel interior for “the Bartered Bride.” Giant flock wallpaper jangles with a stage covered with blue balloons and costumes in stripey black and white. The location was Darmstadt in 2009. If this item is going to Prague I think the label needs correction. “Darm Stadt” as two words translates as “gut town”. Similarly, the label for Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” needs a “c” added.

Cathays Park on the first warm day of the year; “Transformation and Revelation” followed by a production featuring the College’s 2011 graduates. That is just about as good as it gets.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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