STage sTruck

Cos­tumes are a stitch in time, say Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

The past is so in right now. When Os­car Wilde wrote An Ideal Hus­band, he set the play in “the present”, and that in­struc­tion still stands for those who re­vive it 120 years later. The cur­rent pro­duc­tion at the Gate has ac­tu­ally un­der­taken a mod­est feat of time trav­el­ling, but you’d have to be a cou­ture sleuth to know it. In­stead of 1895, the play has been brought for­ward to 1900, “so as to avoid the enor­mous sleeves of 1895/96”, says cos­tume de­signer Peter O’Brien.

This at­ten­tion to pe­riod de­tail high­lights an ex­pec­ta­tion we have for the­atri­cal cos­tumes, which have re­mained more or less du­ti­fully au­then­tic to their era since the 20th century. In­ter­est­ingly, the set de­sign for the Gate’s play is not so hung up on specifics: a slightly ab­stracted space of mir­rored and ma­noeu­vrable walls that can re­sem­ble a panop­ti­con and some­times a bird­cage.

O’Brien’s cos­tumes are un­doubt­edly beau­ti­ful, a com­bi­na­tion of in­spi­ra­tion and re­cre­ation. But whereas set de­signer Fran­cis O’Con­nor has been granted some lat­i­tude, O’Brien has to hag­gle: to play for time.

Do we hold cos­tumes to dif­fer­ent stan­dards? It ap­pears so. Last year, O’Con­nor cre­ated both set and cos­tumes for Mrs War­ren’s Pro­fes­sion at the Gate. The space had a funky con­ceit, lightly in­di­cat­ing place but avoid­ing re­al­ism with a back­drop col­lage of erotic pho­tog­ra­phy. The cos­tumes, though, were as real as they get: ev­ery sleeve was ap­pro­pri­ate to 1894.

You can make con­tem­po­rary points with the set, it seems, but the cloth­ing is more stitched up. A sump­tu­ous fidelity to his­tory is their sell­ing point; the es­capism of see­ing people slip into some­thing a lit­tle less com­fort­able.

O’Brien, for in­stance, has de­signed theatre cos­tumes for some 10 pro­duc­tions, all pe­riod dra­mas, since 2005. His suc­cess has been to re­alise his­tor­i­cal fash­ion with lux­u­ri­ous and sen­su­ous de­tail while rarely tak­ing the­matic lib­er­ties.

At a cer­tain point, though, the rigid­ity of cos­tume dra­mas can chafe. When the Abbey staged Ma­jor Bar­bara last year, the per­for­mance seemed sub­servient to the tai­lor­ing, all cor­rect pos­ture and starched col­lars. An Ideal Hus­band also bears some of that stiff­ness, which can get in the way of the play. Few de­sign­ers would stage Shake­speare with such fer­vent at­ten­tion to El­iz­a­bethan ruffs, be­cause it seems so re­mote.

It would be re­fresh­ing to see Wilde and Shaw more reg­u­larly lib­er­ated from their eras, and par­tic­u­larly the ef­fect on their wardrobes, budged through play­ful con­ceits, as Eimer Ní Mhaoldomh­naigh did for Rough Magic’s 2010 Earnest; or vig­or­ously sen­sa­tion­alised like Antony McDon­ald’s outré Earnest opera year. How would Lord Gor­ing, Wilde’s hero­ically idle and self­ob­sessed dandy, look as a present-day hip­ster, for in­stance, and what would it say about us now?

Fidelity is ad­mirable, but it’s theatre’s bolder fash­ion state­ments that pre­vent cos­tume dra­mas from be­com­ing worn out.

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