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2. The Director’s View

The relationship between designers and directors is not exactly love-hate but there are more pitfalls in it than in most professional relationships because the degree of psychic openness creates a precarious intimacy which requires tact and forbearance on both sides if irreversible problems are not to develop. In a fruitful collaboration it is often hard to remember who had what idea, especially if there are both set and costume designers, so that if one party then steps forward to claim credit unilaterally for everything it can lead to ill-feeling, even a sense of betrayal. Often this situation is created by [British] critics’ perennial inability to decode standard theatrical working practice, so that frequently what is good in a production is attributed to the director, while what is over-designed or stagey is blamed exclusively on the designer. Not that as designer particularly mind that, I just wish critics understood and respected more of what actually goes into a production.

Describing the closeness of this collaboration Katie Mitchell, director of The [RSC’s] Other Place says of her professional relationship with Vicki Mortimer, with whom she has worked for almost a decade: “it is almost impossible for me to have an objective opinion about our relationship and, in the early stages at least, about the strict definition of function between director and designer. Of course the movement from intellectual discussion, research, to practical idea does entail an organic separation of function. For me the key issue is to have a clear and profound understanding of the piece and of why we're doing it. Once that why is in place, the how has a natural movement and growth. For Vicki and I our working relationship goes wrong if we separate off our functions too early, eg before the why is firmly in place.”

I have a great deal of sympathy for directors. Every show is much more of a make-or-break deal for them than it is for designers. For one thing there is always tremendous pressure on them to have a hit, to crystallise the transitory illusion into a memorable experience, and whereas design can certainly make or break a show there is very little that the designer does involves having to assemble such wayward elements as actors, designers, cameramen and to speak in the many specialist tongues used by each discipline. Film director Sally Potter, Orlando and The Tango Lesson, expressed this idea, saying that everyone on a production must “work from within the script outwards, not imposing from outside. We all try to become of one mind, so that we’re watching the same film in our mind’s eye.”

I sometimes alarm students by saying that all directors are bullies, and most designers are masochists! While this is an obvious exaggeration it is ‘a lie which tells the truth’: simply in order to get things done on time women, just as much as men, directors need to be able to call on a testosterone-crazed dictator sub-personality when they need it. On the other hand designing is, in the most profound sense of the word, a feminine occupation regardless of the designer’s gender. It is a reflective and responsive activity, at whose heart lies the creative ability to turn thought forms into three dimensions without losing the emotional charge of the original idea.

However, what unites director and designer is, as Katie Mitchell puts it, the importance of remembering “that both designer and director and indeed even performers are ultimately servants to the bigger idea and narrative of the piece they're working on so that differences of opinion are best solved by the director and designer realigning themselves to that greater idea.”

I talked to a range of directors about the issues in this book. Nicholas Hytner’s definition of a good costume is one which “makes it easier to act; provides an inescapable sense of the right world, the right way to move. It should almost always register the actor’s sexuality, and almost always aspire to project sensuality beyond the room (unless the opposite is dictated by character) I like to be aware of the actor’s body, under the clothes.” His strategy for working with designers is “1, Define the character in discussion previous to design.
2, Redefine it when designs seem to be off-target.
3, Allow major actor input.”

Ian Judge’s way of looking at costume is: “You’re judged by what you wear. Clothes tell people about you, and how you see yourself is crucial to the way you present yourself for others to see you. All these ramifications are an important part of, or are indeed the main, visual indicator to what a person is, both in real life and on the stage. Actors often tell me that they know how to play the part once they have seen the drawing.”

Sally Potter has observed that “the viewer’s eye is always drawn to face and therefore whatever is seen next to face is always perceived as real. So if the story is realistic a good costume is one which serves this method of story-telling: whereas if it is visual or fanciful, the costume can be more of a ‘meaning space’.” Sally is emphatic that “everything counts, each detail tells a story. And nowadays as audiences are far more sophisticated about the significance of material things a great deal more attention has to be paid to the messages the costumes are giving.” She does not really believe in the existence of ‘no period’ costume, since “all costume is in reality period costume, because all costume has references/resonances. This ought not to be a hindrance since the skill of a director is to bring those resonances with you rather than be afraid of or try to suppress them.”

On the balance between setting and costume and their use in different types of space, Nic Hytner thinks: “On the spectrum that ranges from total naturalism to extreme stylisation, I guess you’d find film at one end and opera at the other. But the function doesn’t differ in my view. I can’t bear upholstery masquerading as clothes - far too much of it around, particularly in opera and in period movies. I’m influenced by ballet, particularly post-war ballet, and think everything should aspire to it.”

Katie Mitchell: “I think there is a great difference between the function of a costume in a studio space and the function of a costume on a large stage. For me, the function of the costume is to be, in effect, invisible in that it should simply enhance, focus and complement what the actor is doing so that there is no gap between costume and actor/character. On the small stage it is possible to work in incredible detail when constructing a costume for an environment when the audience can notice a button?hole or a small piece of embroidery, so the visual signifiers (eg psychological signs) can be almost microscopic in their subtlety. However on a large stage in the same way that the psychological truth needs to be amplified technically, so the visual signifiers need a degree of amplification in order that every member of the house has access to them. We should never notice the costume as a separate entity. ” I have italicised this last sentence because, true as I believe it to be, it epitomises the essential problem of discussing the æsthetics of costume, since the issues that arise can never be viewed or debated in abstract.

On the vexed question of changing the period Nic Hytner made the valuable observation “When the author is a stranger to the concept of ‘period’ (eg Shakespeare) then the production should follow suit. When the author’s sense of period is the product of over-feverish romantic imagination (eg 19thC opera) it is sometimes interesting to play around with it. Mainly, however, I’m not crazy about messing around.”

Rather the same point is made by Katie Mitchell: “The factors that lead to changes in the period for a production for me are not related to making a strong conceptual statement, rather to gently opening access to the centre of the material. This can entail the most minor alterations to the cut of a costume, whereby the full force of the fashions of one period are slightly softened or allowing very subtle anachronisms to creep in, like giving Uncle Vanya an almost 1960's style black polo-neck jumper.”

On the distinction between progressive and post-modernism drama veteran fringe director Roland Rees comments: “Progressive drama I take to imply an up?to?dateness and a containment of social content. Whereas post-modernism, with its relativity of values, plucks from all disciplines and times, eschews conventional social and political values and from my own experience often uses methods of collage to achieve its ends.”

Trevor Nunn amplified this when I talked to him: “We live in an age when the authentic presentation of the work of previous ages is really happening for the first time. We now tend to think that absolutely everything these days is revivable. Even plays written 30 or 40 years ago are revived to give us an account of the moods and passions, the fashions and tastes of an immediately previous age. For most of this century the vogue has been to revive work from previous centuries, particularly Shakespeare, but in centuries gone by there was terribly little – there was the occasional Shakespeare yet even such a ‘revival’ was really undertaken in terms of ‘can it survive as a contemporary text?’ and so the 18thC Shakespeare productions were costumed as 18thC events, with minor modifications.

“Latterly I suppose the philosophic dominance of post-modernism has brought about a rebellion. Conclusions have been reached about how history is supposedly of little value, and that the future is to be approached in non-historical terms, and therefore we now have a vogue for costuming eclectically – at times satirically, at times symbolically. Say you’re doing a play written and set in1600 such as The Merry Wives Of Windsor, well you can provide the characters with some element of early Jacobean, or late Elizabethan costume, but it is important to have a Woolworth’s handbag and a fake Dior hat! Anachronism has become a very important part of such an approach, that and Symbol.

“I suppose it’s linked with a fear on the part of directors and designers that their work will seem to be enslaved in some way to the tenets of a previous age, and not capable of commenting on it or viewing it from a satirical or critical distance; and that fear also seems to link to a fear of sentimentality so that now even sentiment itself has been linked in with sentimentality – from which we get a fear of sentiment, a fear of emotional commitment. There is even a current fear about presenting nature on stage, indeed contemporary expression in painting and in sculpture has also rejected nature as a subject.

“Contemporary theatre believes that intention to suspend disbelief is no longer an acceptable intention, that disbelief is an all important part of the process and disbelief has to be encouraged and one has to be reminded of one’s disbelief. So we have to have anachronistic costuming, to have jokes present in the range of costumes, jokes of quotation, eclectic jokes. Of course we are alienated in the sense that Brecht wanted us to be, I mean, distanced and thinking and critical and not sucked in uncritically. I suspect that as much as anything it’s to do with the fact that film has taken over the ability to express nature visually. The attitude is, ‘we can’t compete with that, so let us do something that is not seeking to be comparable.’

“However, a welcome aspect is that we no longer think of the word theatrical as pejorative. When I grew up it only meant excessive or reprehensible or shallow in some way. Now some critics yearn for things to be theatrical in a way that is often yoked with the idea that one no longer has to believe in what one is seeing, one doesn’t have to lose oneself in it because something theatrical is happening. Performance is acknowledged, scale of performance is acknowledged, a vivid act of imagination is acknowledged.

I put it to Trevor that possibly like the world’s great religions, a two tier system of appreciation exists where the general public responds very warmly to an event in which it can lose itself –the use of the collective singular is significant here- but that critics and other intellectuals (whose education and profession has created in them a differentiated perception) are unable to accept the validity of such simplistic emotions without a second tier commenting on it. I wondered if this dichotomy has now become institutionalised in our thought forms?

He replied “Certainly I think there are elements of that. I hear people talk glibly about ‘Director’s Theatre’, but when I first came across it in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1977 there was an extremism in the division between these functions which we have never seen here: the productions were approached critically on three separate and equal levels: firstly the play itself in its original form; the second was the concept of the production in question, what it had been turned into; the third being the present performance. Critics were demanding that the play had to become a parallel event in performance. This relates to the point we started with about doing the dramatist’s work undecorated, Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended - which is something of a nonsense. But here were reviews that elevated the work of the director and designer to take their place alongside the work of the original dramatist. The play was to be seen and understood as something else, the production itself had to be seen as a metaphor, showing us this play in a different light to the one in which it was written. I don’t know how such an approach would square if one was doing the very first production of a play, since according to this theory it is deemed to be the responsibility of directors and designers to present a work in parallel.

“The westward movement of this idea seems to have come through Opera, which has always been the most international of forms. Because the core opera repertoire is relatively small the same works come round pretty regularly and so a need is perceived to produce them in a new, refreshed form, so this approach was ideal as a way of holding up the work for audiences to critique it in parallel with the production. Since then countless productions have been done that shifted the work in date or in intention, and opera audiences found this completely viable, even though, at times, the work they were watching was essentially being lampooned. Traditionalists may hate it but these days they’re out-gunned because opera companies have found it works both critically and commercially.

“I mean, we’re talking here about the history of taste. The theatre has always been linked with taste and fashion. If live theatre and opera continue, then they will remain subject to extreme swings of taste driven by the fashion industry, by philosophers, and by writers concerned with economic progress; just as it’s also going to be driven politically, which is after all only another kind of fashion.”

This question of fashion as a tiger that directors have to ride is an interesting one when someone’s æsthetic runs contrary to prevailing taste. Because I’ve worked so much with Ian Judge I have noticed critics consistently under-rate his productions because he does not conform to a current stereotype yet they always play to excellent houses. I asked him what he thought people meant when they called him old fashioned. “Well I had a conversation with the press lady at Stratford who was reported to have described my productions as old fashioned, and she said that what she really meant was classical - that I deal in images too voluptuous, too appealing to the senses, for the modern taste. You only have to look at the images on videos, or in modern magazines to see the somewhat negative body image which constitutes the cutting edge of zeitgeist taste at the moment. People think that I betray my original thinking by making the presentation too glamorous. Our production of Troilus & Cressida [RSC 1996] was actually raw, bleak & ultimately totally tragic, but all the critics could see was the big red sun, the wrestling male buttocks & Cressida’s beauty, so they condemned the production as un-serious because it didn’t fit into any of their predetermined categories.

“I often think critics see theatre as an intellectual playground and therefore feel threatened by the sensually seductive. We all know that English critics are blind, one hears the tapping of their little white sticks on first nights!, but seemingly they are also unnerved by simple pleasure, and of course the classic response to this is to scoff. Adrian Noble is on record as saying [ironically] that you have no hope of critical success if you use colour. Audiences may enjoy clarity, humanity, good story-telling and colour, but the critics seem only to like slowness, mysterious motives, a strong intellectual concept, and -at the moment- visual inelegance. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t some perverse cult of ugliness. and its high priests write their reviews based on how closely a production matches this. On the other hand I am sustained by a belief that the new romantics are just round the corner, I certainly hope so because you have to work within your beliefs, and that’s difficult if you feel it’s only going to lead to a poor reception.

Trevor Nunn, also talked more broadly of theatre: “When I think back to my schooldays I realise how fortunate I was to see a wide range of productions that were relatively straightforward without other issues being thrust foremost. Nowadays when I see certain modern productions at Stratford and others that have visited London I worry that a 14-16 year-old seeing this play for the first time is probably not going to be able to make head or tail of it because the production relies on the audience being aware of the production history of the play, so that what one is watching is presented as a variant, possibly a shocking variant, on the original text.

“This of course also applies to the recent hugely successful film billed as William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, perhaps for copyright reasons, but altho it was sensationally well filmed, sadly the one thing that that film wasn’t was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However brilliantly it worked with a young audience the text was cut to about 30% and what remained often demonstrated that the people really hadn’t understood the original meaning, or if they had decided that it wasn’t important and they were going to make the text mean something else. When people say to me that it will turn a lot of young people on to Shakespeare I reply that it may turn them on to a certain kind of filmed experience but that it’s probably also creating a lot of false expectations so that when these young people go to the theatre they may be dismayed to find that there are five acts in which people speak in a complex way that demands sustained attention.”

I might perhaps have said something about working with set designers or art directors but in my experience that has rarely been a problem. Perhaps it is the generosity of those I have been fortunate enough to work with, in recent years principally John Gunter, no mean costume designer himself, and Martin Childs and James Merrifield in films. Nevertheless, I hope this range of views defines something of the parameters within which all designers have to operate. I did endeavour to canvass the opinions of several post-modernist directors and their designers but regretably none of them responded.