Exploring the art of the theatre poster

Patrick Argent looks at how theatre posters are underappreciated and why we should herald the designers who still create them.

‘Equus’ National Theatre (1973) designed by Moura George Briggs (courtesy of The National Theatre)

Differentiated from the often predictable and cliched conventions of film posters, the richness and diversity of the theatrical poster can offer up much more visually arresting designs.

Defining what he considered made a great poster, the renowned Finnish designer Pekka Loiri in an interview with Novum magazine (March 2002) said:

“It behaves like a mongrel, running loose in town. It leaves its marks on every lamp post and barks at people at every corner. It attracts attention by loud behaviour, whistling after women, (or) if need be conducts itself impeccably, making a deep bow while opening the door for a lady companion, gentlemanly like.”

Perhaps the most public of all visual communications, the poster has always demanded an unparalleled immediacy of attention and engagement from the passer by. Creating potent visual imagery to effectively communicate and promote the fleeting experience, emotion and complexities of live theatre, presents a particularly exacting challenge to the designer.

The poster epitomises the essence of the play, interprets the director’s often  particular and idiosyncratic vision of a script, intrigues and beguiles the audience, and persuades – all in a single image.

Macbeth (1982) – designed by The Partners, illustration by Ralph Steadman. Commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company

There is perhaps no other area of design other than the poster, where the graphic designer will be regarded as an artist. With theatrical posters especially, design offers the enormous potential to be so much more than just a utilitarian and commercial medium, employed simply as marketing material.

An outstanding poster can retain an authority and unique aesthetic significance of its own, and even be viewed as art, breaking free of any narrow commercial design restraints.

Markedly, the recently published book ‘Presenting Shakespeare – 1,100 Posters From Around The World’ by Mirko Ilic and Steven Heller, highlighted profoundly the almost inexhaustible source of creativity and diverse visual expression of themes that can be found within the realms of the theatrical poster.

Illustration and photography find an extraordinarily prolific platform within the genre where evoking atmosphere is an important element in enticing a prospective audience.

Chris Frampton of The Drawing Room, whose studio created numerous posters for the RSC says: “The script is vital and holds all the clues, but what an individual director is hoping to say with a particular production is also crucial. This is very relevant when working on Shakespeare and is why it is quite possible to do a number of visuals for the same play.

“What we are trying to do is distil several hours of live action on stage, onto a flat piece of paper only 50×76 cm.”

The Merry Wives Of Windsor (1986) – designed by The Partners, illustration by Mick Brownfield. Commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company.

In the recent past, eminent poster designers such as Ken Briggs, George Mayhew, Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew created a notably distinctive aesthetic that not only promoted the individual productions, but also collectively personified a discernible visual identity for The National Theatre.

Aziz Cami, co-founder of The Partners who had previously worked for Ken Briggs Associates contends that the key elements of a great poster resonate from the expansive subject matter and the essence of the live theatrical experience:

“Apart from film of course, you couldn’t have a more richer, more truly evocative subject to work with. There is so much content and substance to get your teeth into. Film posters are made after the film is made, where theatre posters are created when a play is being made, so in a way you have more mystery there, more to play with in a way.

A theatre poster is often dramatic. It can be a traumatic and emotional experience going to the theatre and you have to capture something of that. It has to be more powerful, more direct.The Ralph Steadman images reek of the experience of the play. It is about turning it up, making something that is already an incredibly powerful medium, even more powerful, more exotic and more intense.” 

Designer Mike Dempsey says a poster requires two essential qualities: “A theatre poster should be intriguing and unexpected.”

Uniquely the theatre poster, despite having short printing runs and  generally limited distribution, acts with the production photography as the only other tangible aspect remaining from the impermanent nature of live theatre.

Additionally, the tradition of displaying miniatures of previous plays within a theatre, emphasises further the importance of this inherent visual legacy.

David Hann, former sponsorship and marketing director for Sir Alan Ayckbourn believes clarity and colour are particularly important.

“The perfect poster is the one which captures the viewer, the one that makes you subconsciously stop to consider the image confronting you.

“It will always succeed when its designer has imbued their original idea with visual clarity; using colour, typography and cogent imagery whilst never losing the simplicity of the message. A great theatre poster can unexpectedly fill an auditorium.”

Red Noses (1985) designed by Lloyd Northover Commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company
Red Noses (1985) designed by Lloyd Northover
Commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company


'Abiding Passions' (1990) Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, designed by Patrick Argent
‘Abiding Passions’ (1990) Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, designed by Patrick Argent
'Sweet Bird of Youth' (1993) - designed by Mike Dempsey/ Carroll, Thirkell & Dempsey
‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ (1993) – designed by Mike Dempsey/ Carroll, Thirkell & Dempsey
King Lear
King Lear RSC (1983) designed by The Drawing Room, illustration by Ian Pollock Commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company
Luther (2001)
Luther National Theatre (2001) designed by Michael Mayhew Courtesy of The National Theatre
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