Theatrical performance is laid bare in new galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum, from 1793 stage sets to Mick Jagger’s jumpsuit. Nick Smurthwaite reports
The many craft and design disciplines involved in bringing a stage performance to fruition, whether it is a production of Hamlet or aconcert by the Rolling Stones, are celebrated in the latest addition to the Victoria & Albert Museum collections in London.
More than 760m2 of the South Kensington site are taken up with displays of costumes, 3D set designs, props, artwork, posters, photographs, original scripts and video footage – just about every imaginable aspect of theatre and performance.
The V&A’s design concept for the galleries – a joint effort by resident designer Line Lund and curator Kate Dorney – is to follow the process of production from the origin of an idea through to the presentation of a performance.
‘We decided against doing things in chronological order,’ says Dorney, ‘in favour of displays that expressed all the object types at our disposal. In our collections we have artefacts, documents and artwork for every stage in the production process.’
Disconcertingly, as you enter, you come face to face with a lifelike latex rhinoceros, created for a 2006 revival of the play Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in London. A proper working costume, distant cousin to the pantomime cow, it is operated by two people concealing themselves inside the life-size beast.
There is also an introductory video of interviews with distinguished practitioners (including Peter Hall, Michael Frayn, Monica Mason and Bill Wyman) on various aspects of the performer’s art, as well as a glass cabinet displaying, among other cultural icons, a busted guitar from Pete Townsend’s Who days, an early Punch and Judy, and the ‘breakfast dress’ once worn by Dame Edna Everage, festooned with stick-on eggs, bacon, sausage and baked beans.
Being the V&A, costumes and costume designs are prominently displayed, including a tutu Margot Fonteyn wore for Swan Lake in 1964, the 1970s jumpsuit Mick Jagger leapt around in, a tunic worn by Richard Burton as Henry V in 1955, Laurence Olivier’s jacket from a 1945 production of Oedipus Rex, and a Valkyrie showgirl costume from The Producers.
There is an open area where visitors can try on various pantomime costumes before admiring themselves in front of a huge floor-to-ceiling mirror, as well as a mock-up of Kylie Minogue’s dressing room, looking suitably chaotic.
The section dedicated to the advertising, promotion and merchandising of performance events should interest anyone studying or involved with those areas. For pure kitsch, the scarlet silk souvenir programme for the 2239th performance of The Mousetrap in 1958, making it the longest running show in the West End, takes some beating.
Posters for 19th century shows tended to be more colourful and graphic because of the high proportion of people who couldn’t read. Circus posters of the time depict histrionic ringmasters or mighty beasts so that potential customers, literate or otherwise, were in no doubt as to what was on offer.
There is the artwork for Jamie Reid’s original anti-establishment collage for a 1977 Sex Pistols poster, and the director Lindsay Anderson’s hedonistic photo-collage for his 1975 production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. By contrast, the poster for the epoch-making Look Back in Anger, which marked a new beginning in theatrical realism, is all geometric shapes, plain fonts and no frills.
In another gallery, concentrating on set design, you come across the earliest surviving British set model – for a 1793 production of The Wonders of Derbyshire by the landscape painter Philip James de Loutherbourg, as well as box sets by Edward Gordon Craig, Edward Burra, John Piper, Alison Chitty and Ralph Koltai.
For those interested in the design and construction of theatres, there are architects’ drawings of theatre interiors and a scale model of the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane.
Space has been allocated for temporary exhibitions – currently a display of the backstage and rehearsal pictures by the veteran stage photographer Reg Wilson – and for the showing of selected clips from the National Video Archive of Performance. Full-length screenings are also planned for the future.
The spacious new galleries go a long way towards compensating for the loss of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, setting the nation’s theatrical treasures in the wider context of the V&A’s international reach.