Summerhall: Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga

February 2013

Publication: The Times

This aptly-titled, touring show, which demonstrates how bare stages can be utterly transformed and reveals the immensely creative, collaborative processes behind such transformations, originates from the Victoria & Albert Museum in partnership with The Society of British Theatre Designers. Transformation and Revelation highlights the work of British members of the profession  ¾which includes set- and lighting designers, scenographers and costume makers ¾via a series of thirty-three ‘vitrines’. That the term ‘vitrine’ is a misnomer (the displays are a combination of metal frames, mesh, computer screens, good lighting and some glass) is perhaps characteristic of what we might expect from such innovative and iconoclastic artists.


One display, by Garance Marneur, consists partially of an enormous inflated silken orb, pulsating with light and energy, which almost fills the room. Marneur’s prop-cum-set formed the setting for the dance work, Khaos, choreographed by Benjamin Levy, performed by Scottish Dance Theatre and lit by Emma Jones.


If Khaos’ success lies in its energy and spectacle, then other set designs function through a combination of colour, complexity, structure, acoustics, proportion and atmosphere. The last, admittedly a loose term, might be applied to Ben Stone’s set for Alan Rickman’s production of Strindberg’s Creditors, performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London in 2008.  Strindberg considered the play his most mature and even from the rather sparse ‘vitrine’, which includes a photograph of the finished set, as well as a shot of Anna Chancellor’s anguished Tekla, it is possible to imagine that one is looking on, privately, to the drawing room of Swedish seaside hotel filled with the characteristic pale blue-white light of the Baltic.


Kathrine Sandys, the scenographer who created the set for Hush House came up with an altogether different proposition ¾an orchestrated audience journey through a decommissioned military facility at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk.  Sandys created a sub-sonic architecture (sound inaudible to the human ear) in a test hangar dating from the Cold War. Even from photographs the vast tubular structure presents an eerily confined and controlled space. Presented as part of the Aldeburgh Festival in 2010 Hush House’s combination of constructed light and sound within an existing space, turns the notion of tradition theatrical set and audience on its head. Here the audience becomes incorporated into, and so becomes part of, the work itself.


There are many more sets to peruse here from Connor Murphy’s minimalist set for Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Es Devlin’s creation for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball.  The juxtaposition of a cruise liner and Auschwitz in Johan Engels set for

Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera Die Passagierin is absurd and grotesque, but is carried by the artistry.


Although many of these sets are clearly imbued with the sensibilities of fine art and architecture, these set designers are clearly proficient and accomplished artists in their own right. This unusual exhibition deserves as much exposure as it can get given the high quality of its content and design.


Most set designers barely get a mention in theatre critics’ reviews ¾even when they do, it’s often only fleetingly. It’s commendable, and not before time, that British theatre designers have, literally, got their act together, by celebrating their multifarious talents with a much expanded audience.