Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 18 December 2017

Stage: 'I don't believe that design should be just used as a decorative layer'

Full circle: Stage-designer Hannah Bowe
Full circle: Stage-designer Hannah Bowe

Chris McCormack

When stage designer Hanna Bowe hands me a blazer sparkling with red sequins, stitched with gold lace and a black fur collar, I try to recall if I've ever seen a flashier look for its wearer. This is court dress for Shakespeare's Lear.

There are several garment rails populating the rehearsal room for C Company's upcoming production. I ask Bowe to divulge their origins. She cringes. "Every designer goes to Penneys eventually."

The blazer was scooped up in the Zara sale, though the lace and collar she added herself to provide traces of nobility. On a neighbouring rail she points out crinoline cages from IKEA. The collection as a whole seems made up of contemporary items nodding to past royalty.

"Costume takes the lead in this one," says Bowe, also a designer of set and lighting. "That's how it developed in the room."

Bowe is neatly composed, though her hands often spring to life to describe some miraculous piece of stage machinery, as if she were translating words into visual form. "I've always had a fascination with working with my hands.

"We did a play in primary school and my mother made the costumes. I was a queen, and I got to wear a dress with pillows sewed underneath the skirt. I had a throne made of builder's foam, gold spray and marbles. I found it so magical - what can be created with your own hands".

Her hands then rotate to imagine an onstage merry-go-round that she recalls from a German production of Puccini's opera La Bohème that she saw when she was 14. "It was the most beautiful and cheesiest thing. But I started crying." Ask anyone for memorable moments in theatre and most will describe an actor's performance. You less often hear how they're stirred by images created by stage design.

Bowe has quite a few such moments at hand. She recalls seeing Verdi's opera Aida in an outside amphitheatre in Verona, where the opening cue was the setting of the sun. "That image was so powerful," she says, still filled with wonder.

Her hands shift again. "They had a giant pyramid which rotated onstage. There were like 50 dancers, a 100-person chorus. When you see magical moments like that, there's something very moving about them."

Bowe's own designs are often marked by a transformation of spare materials into something extraordinary. She credits Antony Gormley's minimalist sculptures as an influence, as well as the playful video art of William Kentridge and Rothko's primal use of colour.

Her set for Collapsing Horse's production of Virgil's The Aeneid, for example, consisted of a platform that impressively resembled marble steps in ancient Rome. The reality is less lavish. "It was plywood, paint, sand, and a lot of late nights.

"Layers of different shades of grey were scratched on to the wood with a spatula, and then painted over with white wall paint mixed with sand. It was all done over three or four weeks."

Such attention to detail was also seen in her lighting for C Company's production of August Strindberg's tragicomedy Creditors. Slow and subtle illuminations prompted a naturalistic play towards a more ethereal display by the end: the image of defeated characters cut by shadows of Venetian blinds. "All the cues were between two and six minutes long, so we'd land in a slightly darker moment without necessarily noticing."

Academia and criticism have been slow to arrive at stage design, probably because spectacle and visual indulgence has long been thought of as superficial, and even detrimental, to the words of the playwright and the presence of the actor. Bowe, who believes that designers are underutilised, speaks of design as a co-authorial force rather than an overpowering element. But it's not necessarily subordinate to the play: "I don't believe design should be a decorative layer."

With her company, the Umbrella Theatre Project, she worked in such a fashion on their debut play Glowworm, a satire of upper-class Victorian society centred on a young entomologist. Her design has been nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award.

"Glowworm is an example of how I'd ideally like to work. I would have been in the room from the start. If someone hit a bump and someone asked 'how can the actors do this?", I could say 'maybe the actors don't do this; maybe something happens in the lights that informs this moment'.

"Everything was made on location, and everything grew out of each other. There were a lot of ideas I maybe wouldn't have had if I didn't see the actor interacting with a gadget. And maybe the actors wouldn't have found something if I hadn't handed them an umbrella or something".

For King Lear, Bowe has drawn inspiration from the Carnival festival in Cologne, where she spent time growing up. People who attend the street parades come dressed as a character, combining their own wardrobes with found items of costume.

"The director, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, and I developed the framing device together." Bowe believes that design, well placed to re-energise an old play, can make it accessible to a new audience.

"If we put them in period costume that can't say anything about today, then why would we put it on?" Her hands remain firm.

King Lear runs at O'Reilly Theatre until February 4

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