Tuesday 21 May 2019

The woman in black

Andrea Smith

Costume designer Joan Bergin's own wardrobe choices have not always mirrored her colourful career, writes Andrea Smith. After sculpting Dublin nightclubs and dressing stars like Brad Pitt, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson, she recently won two Emmys for her opulent creations on The Tudors

When people ask why she always dresses in black, award-winning costume designer Joan Bergin has a suitably theatrical response.

"I'm in mourning for my life," she laughs, borrowing the line from Masha in Chekhov's The Seagull.

She's only joking, of course, because life is great for the celebrated costume designer, who has won two Emmy Awards for the hit TV series, The Tudors.

There's an element of disguise to always wearing black, she says, and her love for it began in the Seventies. She travelled the world promoting the best of Irish emerging design, through carpet makers Irish Ropes and Coras Trachtala, and it was a heady odyssey of exposure to great design in furniture, galleries, and fashion.

"It centred my own style and gave me a lifelong interest in architecture," she says. "I used to joke that I left wearing rose pink, and returned to wear only neutrals for the rest of my life. Now it's all black -- lazy perhaps, but a reassuringly quick grab at 5.30 in the morning. And yet if I go to buy anything new, it looks better in black. Much better. It sure helps me to understand addiction!"

She also always wears a hat, which started when she was working in Australia and wore the Akubra there. Another signature piece is one of her collection of unusual ties, to which friends love to add. When I meet her, she's wearing a sparkly silver one.

In person, Joan is warm and engaging, and she takes great care of you if you're a visitor to her costume room. She brings me on set, where a gorgeous ballroom scene is being filmed, and introduces me to everyone. Then she asks someone to show me the breathtaking scene that was filmed that morning -- where the wicked Henry VIII publicly introduces his new love Jane Seymour, just after Anne Boleyn has been beheaded.

And then it's off to the costume room, where a spectacular sight assails the eye. I could have spent hours among the dozens of rails of amazing costumes, which transport you to a world where sexual intrigue and dastardly plots reign supreme. And as for the hundreds of fabulous necklaces, brooches, headpieces and accessories laid out on tables -- I so wanted to steal every last one of them.

The costumes are made for the principals and rented for the extras, while accessories are borrowed from everywhere. That's the advantage of having a hit show, says Joan. Everyone is willing to lend you things.

It came as a surprise to me to learn that Joan is no seamstress, so her team is responsible for turning her vision into reality on a daily basis. There are 22 altogether, between the workshop and wardrobe, and as you pass through they are all working away -- sewing, fitting, and adjusting.

"I can just about sew, so I'm very dependent on them to interpret what I do," she says. "I think I'm a good boss, and I put tremendous store in having a successful working relationship with the crew around me. I'd like to think they feel they have collaborated in the success we've had."

If you rewound the years, however, and saw the schoolgirl Joan Bergin at the Dominican School in Cabra, you would never have picked her out for her sense of style.

"Quite the opposite," she says. "The ribbon in my hair would always be half askew, and I was so untidy in school that the nun sent for my mother."

Joan had a teacher called Sister Mary Jude for six years, and hers was a kind of experimental class, with an emphasis on the arts. Anyone who had a talent was encouraged, and this, Joan says, is where she blossomed.

"I was in the choir in the class, which the others called 'Judy's Boasters' because we were always going off somewhere," she laughs. "I was incredibly shy as a child, but always had a very strong sense of self."

After school, Joan started working in furniture design, and then began acting. She loved it, but everything changed when, in a small company where everyone did everything, she agreed to do costumes for Leonid Andreyev's play, He Who Gets Slapped.

Noel Pearson saw the show and asked her to do some work for him, and then she started doing some interior architecture.

"I went through a phase of designing every nightclub in Dublin," she says. "Lillie's Bordello was my whole concept because I decided that Judge Roy Bean had this fantasy to offer Lillie Langtry something superb like a salon."

By then, Joan had realised that she was never going to make a career in acting, but it took her a long time to let go of the aspiration.

"Or more honestly, a long time to recognise that I would never be an amazing actor," she says. "I haven't a great speaking voice, because it's very light, so I was quite good at it, without being great."

Joan has worked with many famous people, and a few of them have made an impression on her.

"Day-Lewis is such a superb artist, and Brad Pitt is just the nicest person to work with," she says. "Bowie came in looking like an out-of-work dancer from the New York Ballet, and that was the only time ever that my knees nearly went."

"I did The Prestige in LA with Scarlett Johansson, and she was lovely," she adds. "She had this hairless Chihuahua in her bag though, and it would yap like mad every time I went over to her. And even though I like dogs, I thought he was stretching it a little bit."

And what of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who has attracted some attention recently for his off-screen antics?

"We have a very sound working relationship," she says. "He's like a rock star really, and I'm sure Henry was like that too in his time. Many artists like Jonny are not the calmest people around, but that's what drives their mojo! I often think to myself, glory be to God if he didn't like my designs, because he has to change his clothes about eight times a day.

"And I think it's incredibly brave of him to interpret a king that he doesn't even vaguely look like," she adds. "You'd only have to look at him to know that the clothes are going to look great on him -- sure, his waist is smaller than mine!"

Joan's partner is journalist Kevin O'Connor, and she credits him with keeping the home fires burning while she's away on location.

"I think it takes a very generous person to accept that this is what feeds you and keeps you going," she says. "You can get so wrapped up in what you're doing at work, that when someone says that the cat needs to go to the vet, you almost think, 'Do we have a cat?'"

Aside from work, family is the other big love of Joan's life. She doesn't have children, she says, because by the time she got around to thinking about having a child, the window of opportunity had passed.

"I think I was a terribly slow developer," she says. "I really love children, as often happens when you don't have any, and I get on great with all the ones around me. I consider myself so lucky to be so close to my family, and often look around the table on Christmas Day, and think, 'I'm a lucky bugger!'"

While Joan won two well-deserved Emmys for the costumes, she credits the writers with helping her to bring the perfect balance of historical accuracy and modern sensibility to the clothes. And as it happens, history was her best subject at school, and she researches every character thoroughly.

Joan's wonderful work can currently be seen in the beautiful costumes in Riverdance, which was one of her favourite projects of all. She didn't design the original costumes, so it was a challenge to come into a show that was already a success and put her mark on it.

"When it started off, the costumes were more minimalist and a wonderful look for that time," she says. "We had to present more historical detail in the costumes by the time they took the show to Broadway because the whole Celtic Tiger thing had come in. It's important to interpret for the time that people are at, otherwise the clothes become museum pieces."

And despite having seen the show a million times, Joan still gets moved at every performance.

"I remember bringing the producer/director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) to it, and he found himself in tears at the big numbers. It was to do with the sense of hope that Riverdance brings, with young people tapping themselves out into the world in negative times."

As for the future, Joan says she'd love to write something on the vexing question of interesting style choices for older women.

"If we accept that slip dresses with acres of exposed flesh is not the answer, than neither is a shapeless cotton jersey," she says. "Where are the pieces in the high street shops? You could take out a loan and only dress in steel grey Yamamoto with silver jewellery. But, mixing metaphors and borrowing from Shirley Conran, is life too short to stuff a mushroom?"

Riverdance, Gaiety Theatre, until August 30.

Booking (01) 677-1717

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