Stages of the ages

A new exhibition at the Theatre Museum focuses on one of the leading lights of theatre design. Nick Smurthwaite tracks the early developments in this field

The role of the theatre designer has become increasingly grand and lucrative in the latter half of the 20th century, prompting critics to comment on “designer musicals” and to talk about “whistling the sets on the way home”.

But any design luminary in this field will tell you that the man who made them all think big in the first place was a serious-minded, rather effete Victorian named Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966).

The way in which Craig – son of Dame Ellen Terry, the famous actress – rejected the 19th century appetite for historical correctness in favour of a starker, bolder, more imaginative style is the subject of a new exhibition, Exploding Tradition, at the Theatre Museum in London’s Covent Garden.

The theatre world Craig grew up in decreed that every location called for by the play should be fully represented on stage. Two-dimensional painted scenery, lit by gas, allowed for an obsessive degree of detail and accuracy.

After nearly a decade of working in this pictorial tradition, mostly as an actor, Craig turned his back on it and started to think in more imaginative ways about the presentation of plays. He came to believe that over-elaborate design was a distraction from the play and the performance: that design should enhance and complement the performance, rather than compete with it.

The poet WB Yeats, reviewing Craig’s set designs for the opera Dido and Aeneas, said he had evolved “a new and distinct art… how to decorate a play with severe, beautiful and simple effects of colour, that leave the imagination free to follow the suggestions of the play”.

Craig’s theories harked back to Ancient Greece and the simplicity of the amphitheatre, where play, scenery and setting were all of a piece. Because the audience surrounded the players on all sides, there was no question of back-drops or effects.

One of the main installations at the Theatre Museum recreates Craig’s innovative design for a Moscow Arts Theatre production of Hamlet, using a series of movable screens. These could be re-positioned repeatedly during the course of the play to achieve different effects and lighting surfaces.

But after Craig left England to live on the Continent in 1904, complaining that his talents were under-valued, he confined himself mostly to writing and lecturing on the theatre, applying his theories to the stage in a practical sense extremely rarely. “He spent most of his life in the South of France giving out advice to young design students who paid him court,” recalls John Bury, doyen of design at the National Theatre for many years, now retired. “He did lovely drawings, but he was more of an inspirer than a doer. He wasn’t really what I’d call a man of the theatre. He was not concerned about whether a design worked or not. If things went wrong with one of his designs, which happened quite often, he’d blame it all on the practical theatre people and then disappear back to the South of France. He used to complain that nobody wanted to employ him, but a lot of us felt that he brought that on himself.”

Neither was the outspoken playwright George Bernard Shaw over-impressed with Craig’s whingeing about his poor treatment at the hands of the English theatre establishment. “He wanted a theatre to play with,” wrote Shaw, “a theatre in which he could frame his pictures in the proscenium and cut the play to pieces to suit them, and forbid the actors to do anything that could distract the attention of the audience from his pictures.”

Exploding Traditions is at the Theatre Museum, 1E Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, London WC2. Tel: 0171-836 7891

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