All the world's a stage: Dramatic Society of British Theatre Designers show heads to the V&A

By Ben Miller | 02 February 2015

Kate Bush, Miley Cyrus, Frida Kahlo and Brecht all feature in an exhibition by The Society of British Theatre Designers opening at the V&A this summer

Click on the gallery to launch

Sometimes creepy, frequently fantastical, usually artistically exquisite and in some cases technically stupendous, this storyboard of theatrical layouts is thorough enough to do justice to the stylistically diverse range of set, costume, lighting, sound and performance designers who created them.

Taking the concept right back to the start, a sketchbook brimming with scrawls, designs and photos inside an empty building was drawn up for Black Stuff, a play in a forgotten Iceland supermarket on Swansea High Street about the mines directed by new graduates Lizzie Friends and Cadi Lane.

Theirs is a profession, the exhibition suggests, that rifles through history but serves the most contemporary.

A photo of a costumed creature with massive eyes and a huge red mouth and tongue
Rae Smith, The Prince of the Pagodas, Japan (2011); UK (January 2014)
Next to Masquerade, the V&A’s new Europe 1600-1800 gallery installation of Harlequins, Masked Balls and Commedia dell’ Arte, is Es Devlin's Miley Cyrus whose familiar outstretched jaw and shining teeth are replicated in a line like a monstrous pop vending machine.

The overbearingly saccharine look of big-screen productions can be exhausting, which is not to be unkind to Ian Westbrook’s Birmingham Hippodrome commissions, which, he says, chime with the uniquely British pantomime and all the glittery garishness they entail.

More subtle are Jonathan Fensom’s elegant drawings for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe – “more earthly and more animal”, he says of these fairies, “more mysterious and a touch scary.”

Katherina Radeva lays out the juicy pink jackets and marine pillowcase tops from the Frida Kahlo-inspired Falling in Love with Frida, a joyful production which toured nationally last year and rewarded Radeva (who saw Kahlo paint live in Paris) with an award.

A photo of costume designs showing a figure in a gold outfit with red spikes on his head
Marie-Jeanne Lecca, costume designs for The Magic Flute, Bregenz Lake Stage, Bregenzer Festspiele (June 2013)
There are tiny sets everywhere – from Hull Truck or the Royal Swedish Opera, Glyndebourne or Neil Murray’s macabre warehouse of vagrants and vagabonds from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.

Meanwhile Dick Bird reveals how Kate Bush showed almost no interest in taking to the stage while rehearsing at the Apollo for her comeback gigs, concentrating instead on the lighting desk and the video console.

There are circular feats of architecture, splendidly gross and scary creatures, luxurious dresses wreathed in flowers and costumes which look freshly descended from other planets, all contextualised from formative outlines to their ultimate realisation.

  • Make: Believe UK Design for Performance 2011-2015 is at the V&A for nine months from early July 2015, then tours the UK from March 2016. Visit theatredesign.org.uk/exhibitions for more.

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