Books: Ode to the joy of sets designing
Irish Theatrescapes, Joe Vanek, Gandon, Editions, €39.99
Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30
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.
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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