The art of theatre
11 June – 26 September 2005
The National Gallery of Australia holds a rich collection of Australian Theatre Arts. This collection contains almost three thousand items, comprising a diverse array of material. A high proportion of the collection consists of works on paper – designs for costumes and sets for the stage. A small number of examples date from the turn of the nineteenth century; however the strength of the collection is material dating from the late 1930s to the early 1980s. These designs have provided the inspiration for Stage fright: the art of theatre, an exhibition for children.
Stage fright is specifically designed for primary school children and their families, but will be fascinating for all audiences with an interest in theatre design. Children can witness the genesis of a design as the artist’s vision takes shape on paper, en route to its final destination on stage. Visitors will be led on a voyage of discovery through images drawn from mythology, fairytales, visionary worlds, fantasy characters and dreamlike designs, intended for the ballet, opera and the theatre stage.
The exhibition opens with stunning set designs by several artists. Some, such as Sidney Nolan, are almost household names as their careers traverse numerous media and forms over many decades in Australia and overseas. His small, sparse, abstract design for the ballet Icare of 1940 is beautiful in its simplicity and clarity of colour and line. In contrast, Greg Irvine’s larger design for Scheherazade uses rich, vivid colour to create an opulent fantasy of the orient. Elaine Haxton and Wolfgang Cardamatis demonstrate a lightness of touch in their designs for the ballets Journey to the moon and Minotaure, their style reminiscent of the ‘charm school’ of the 1940s and 50s in Australia.
Exquisitely rendered finished drawings are displayed alongside others that have been quickly executed in order to capture the essence of an idea, a posture, a movement or a character. The sketches of ballerinas, drawn singly or grouped together, describe not only the texture, colour and design of a costume, but how that design might function on a performer in movement – how a translucent cloth might shimmer on the body, or how a bold graphic decoration might appear when worn on stage. Because the longevity of these artworks was not necessarily considered important, fragile and ephemeral materials are a feature of some designs. In Kenneth Rowell’s design for soldiers from the Carte blanche of 1953, for example, the artist has used sections of newspaper clippings as decorative devices and loosely painted swirls and flourishes to add a feeling of action and vitality.
On display nearby is a sketch by Kenneth Rowell of costumes for the three Ivans from The Sleeping Beauty. This joyously patterned sketch, and the adjacent film footage, is from Dame Peggy van Praagh’s 1974 production of The Sleeping Beauty by the Australian Ballet, directed by Sir Robert Helpmann and designed by Rowell. In the premiere performance Lucette Aldous danced the role of Princess Aurora with Garth Welch as the Prince. During the season both Maina Gielgud made her debut and Marilyn Jones returned to dance as Princess Aurora. The footage includes behind the scenes and close-up film of ballerinas taken from the wings, which gives an intimate feel to the stage. The program from this production of The Sleeping Beauty completes the setting.
Exotic paintings and set designs for Le Coq d’Or, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland provide an armoury of stories told in breathtaking colour. Loudon Sainthill’s depiction of the beautiful Queen Shemakhan striding in her vermillion beaded gown is displayed alongside the design for her magic tent. The same artist’s designs for the pantomime Cinderella, completed four years later, are equally dramatic but contain a wicked humour appropriate to the characters. Rogers and Hammerstein produced the music for this production of Cinderella, the young singer Yana played the title role with Tommy Steele in the role of her best friend Buttons, Bruce Trent played the Prince, and Betty Marsden was the Fairy Godmother. Jimmy Edwards and Enid Lowe played the King and Queen and the stepsisters, Joy and Portia, were played by Ted Durante and Kenneth Williams (of Carry on fame) in the pantomime tradition of ‘drag’.
Many of these working drawings were used to articulate the artist’s vision to costume and set makers, dancers and actors. The design was but one part of many steps towards the final work of art – the full stage production. In some instances, the designer was also the creator of the costumes. Mirka Mora both designed and painted the costumes for Euripides’ play The Bacchae, performed at the Playbox Theatre in 1980. Her bright, jewel-like designs on paper, when translated into full-sized costume maintain her trademark whimsy, but also evoke a fearsome strength. The complete costume for Cadmus – purple and orange clothing, blue and green full-face mask and painted fawn skin – appears as heroic and as dangerous as any warrior.
The idea of metamorphosis or transformation underpins the exhibition’s premise: actors changing into characters, figures turning into creatures and puppets coming to life. This idea of transformation is also a metaphor for the way costume and set designs are realised as three-dimensional costumes and stage sets, which are in turn given life by dancers, singers, actors and performers.