Saturday 1 October 2016

Books: Ode to the joy of sets designing

Irish Theatrescapes, Joe Vanek, Gandon, Editions, €39.99

Emer O'Kelly

Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30

On set: Jane Brennan as Constance Wilde from Irish Theatrescapes. Vanek Exhibition, Cross Gallery, D8, 4 – 7 Nov
On set: Jane Brennan as Constance Wilde from Irish Theatrescapes. Vanek Exhibition, Cross Gallery, D8, 4 – 7 Nov
Irish Theatrescapes by Joe Vanek

The designer Joe Vanek has been responsible for many of the most acclaimed set designs in Irish theatre for nearly 30 years, visualising the work of revered authors such as Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy and Frank McGuinness. Much of his work has become almost the stuff of legend, such as the now iconic wheat field in the award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa.

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Now the general public has an opportunity to see just why and how Vanek's talent has allowed him to get into the minds of the authors and directors with whom he has worked. ­Gandon ­Editions in Kinsale have brought to ­fruition a ­project which has long been at the back of Vanek's mind: Irish ­Theatrescapes, a book which tracks his work on 34 productions, from ­landscape ­photographs taken on ­exploratory trips around the country, through the ­tentative early sketches, with bird's eye views of the balsam wood models, and 'men at work' on construction. And each is then recorded in the ­actuality of performance, caught forever as actors ­inhabit the set as their world for an evening. Or, as Vanek writes in his ­introduction to the section of plays set in the ­landscape, "they share a ­common thread of time fractured: ­sometimes this is just a ­matter of ­characters recalling the past, at other times moving back and forth . . . seemingly ­inexhaustible realms of myth, magic, and superstition."

In his foreword (one of the last things he wrote), Brian Friel says: "The Greeks would have been happy to work with Joe Vanek . . . no designer is less ostentatious . . . and I ­consider myself fortunate to have collaborated so often with an artist so astute, so alert, and so responsive to the writer's words."

The designer's own observations in his introductory essays prove the truth of ­Friel's observation. Writing of his work on Frank ­McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the English-born-and-­educated designer describes the play as a "brilliantly honest and devastating investigation into the Irish Protestant mind during the First World War." Vanek's outsider eye has ­itself brilliantly seen the ­characters not as ­"northerners" or as ­Orangemen, but as ­"Irishmen". Perhaps that is what made his set design for the ­Abbey ­production in 1994 so ­viscerally ­undivided. As McGuinness writes in his contribution: "When I give a script to Joe Vanek for him to design, I always feel ­something that does not come easily to me: that is, a sense of security."

Vanek himself is ­endearingly frank as well: his terror at ­"taking on" Beckett . . . "it's not as if (looks around, thinking ­desperately) . . . it's not (pause) . . . as if . . . were we to deviate even slightly . . . (pause, ­whisper) . . . that the sky would fall . . . but it did." That was when he designed a production of Beckett's Happy Days for Annie Ryan's Corn ­Exchange company in 2010.

But it is Tom Kilroy who perhaps best sums up Vanek's work. He apparently has two panels of early draft drawings of the unforgettable set for The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde at the Abbey in 1997 above the desk in his study.

He writes: "They ­represent the mind of a great ­designer in the actual process of ­developing ideas." And he goes back (to them), Kilroy says, "again and again for ­sustenance, particularly when things are going badly at the desk and the work appears to be going nowhere."

Irish Theatrescapes. New Irish Plays, Adapted European Plays and Irish Classics is a thing of beauty and endless fascination in itself; it is also a treasure trove of ­information, beautifully delivered, in the technical and meticulous, often deeply frustrating, ­workings behind a successful theatre production.

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