Sets and costume design take centre stage at Bonington Gallery’s Make/Believe

Gary McCann - Die Fledermaus (Credit Bonington Gallery)

Gary McCann – Die Fledermaus (Credit Bonington Gallery)

Who can forget the magical opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games? Or the flamboyant costumes a pantomime? Sometimes it is the minimal sets of a drama – a few plastic stacking chairs against a black background for example – which proves so effective by subtly stirring a mood and concentrating our minds on what’s before us.

All too often design is forced into the background, with critics focussing on the actors’ performances or the script first and foremost. But it is design which lifts a performance above a mere reading or rehearsal – and it is this aspect of theatre which is explored in the Make/Believe exhibition currently showing at Nottingham Trent University’s Bonington Art Gallery.

Created over the past four years, this diverse collection features model boxes for stage sets, costume designs, costumes, props and mood boards which show the relationship between the designer, producer and director. The pieces come from a range of events and productions including the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as plays, ballet opera, pop concerts and more.

Some of the pieces are works of art in their own right and it’s a shame that they don’t normally go on display to the public. The model box for the Merchant of Venice, which comes complete with plush chairs and oak-panelled walls, is incredibly detailed and lets the audience members immerse themselves in this world of money, while the illustrations that accompany the large-scale outdoor events are beautiful.

These contrasted well with a Royal Opera House production of Kafka’s The Metamorphisis in which the clinical, white background is contaminated by a strange black fluid which evokes the physicality of his transformation into an insect. Similarly, the empty-looking brutalist set created for a production of King Lear which captures the cruelty and mental anguish of the play.

Another highlight was the model box created for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera which was performed at Nottingham Playhouse last year. I distinctly remember the unforgiving industrial set, with swathes of ripped red fabric which poked fun of the traditional theatre curtain separating the performers from the audience so seeing it in miniature form was incredible.

Make/Believe is a collaboration between the Society of British Set Designers, V&A museum and Nottingham Trent University. Selected works will go on display at the Prague Quadrennial in June and the V&A from July before going on a nationwide tour in 2016.

The exhibition is showing at Bonington Gallery (Newton Building) until 31st January. Entry is free. 

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