by Yuki SumnerOct 12, 2022
One cannot talk about theatre without referring to the illustrious long tradition of Greek plays and their playwrights. No prizes for guessing that the famous style of stage-setting is rooted in Greek theatres, of which Theatre of Dionysus, situated on the south side of the Acropolis, stands as a tall example. Under the burden of conquest and time, it was lost to the dust only to be rediscovered and restored in 1765 under the guidance of archaeologist Wilhelm Dorpfeld. During the Renaissance period, the set-design was dubbed as a pivot art form that had the potential to lend an added perspective to the storyline. The modernist painters including Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso created designs for the Ballets Russes – an itinerant Ballet Company based in Paris. Imbibing the tradition are the current day artists - David Hockney, Damien Hirst, and William Kentridge. As the theatre production elaborated in terms of writing and production, the collaboration with the set-designer, director and performer was all about co-existence. Taking the lead in the field is the London-based set designer Es Devlin.
Devlin’s first brush with the intricacies and pattern of art and backdrop set-up was when she bought a volume of Japanese prints during her visit to an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art with her mother. Circuitously taking inspiration from the book, she made a mural on one of her bedroom walls. After studying English literature, she did a year-long theatre design course. It was during this time she got an opportunity to turn her hands dirty when she started working with Le Cirque Invisible, the circus company run by Victoria Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and the granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill. To have a holistic understanding of play and production, Devlin had mentioned, she had to “memorise the whole ballet”. Before setting the designs for a performance, she often dwells on questions such as “what is the importance of the play, why it is written and why it ought to be watched”. For her production sets are not about physical appearance or décor, it involves participation with the minds of performer and audience. Working on the opera Otello, by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, she said in an interview for The New Yorker, it is not, “about castles and ships. It is about the storms that can rage among three people in a drawing-room”.
For Devlin, who has designed Shakespearean theatres, opera to fashion and musical concerts, the production set-ups serve not as a “backdrop but as an environment” that demand a response from the performer, director, and audience. Bordering on the nuances of realism and abstract aesthetic, her productions are not standing in isolation but participate in the art of accentuating the drama. Tapping into the pulse of the audience, Devlin is keen to draw inspirations from a variety of historical eras, yet retain the look and feel of contemporary production. To achieve this, she brings in the visual vocabulary of the artists —Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Bill Viola, Pina Bausch, Bruce Nauman, Tracey Emin—whom she has worked with or have been of immense influence to her aesthetic sensibilities.
For her celebrated production Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Devlin went through every line of the play to rightly recreate the atmosphere for the performer that was not daunting but enabling. She even won WhatsOnStage Award for Best Set Design for Hamlet at the Prince of Wales Theatre. For her, another famous project was rock band U2’s tour Innocence + Experience, where she designed a walkway that had two screens on each side. The band members moving in and out of the images made it experiential for both the performer and audience. As the name of the tour reads, it traces the journey of the members from their early days in Ireland to the iconic music band. Interestingly, Devlin does not seem to be inhibited by the star image, her attempt to present the magnanimous life to the audience is underlined by the production aesthetic.
Devlin is very much cognizant of the inevitable shelf life of production sets. To tear the bracket of time constraint, Devlin strives to design “mental structures, not physical installations”. While finding routes to the “memory” her production designs achieve a sense of permanence in the minds of the people.