More Frantic Moves

A week or so ago I shared the video Frantic Assembly Masterclass: Building Blocks for DevisingToday, here is the second one from the company, Learning to Flythis time led by artistic director Scott Graham. Again, an excellent resource which presents a series of exercises and techniques used to create spectacular lifts.

Incidentally, DV8 Physical Theatre have launched a media portal as part of their online offering.  It includes excerpts of their productions as well as what are called instructional videos about the making and rehearsal of their work. There is a charge (by way of becoming a paying DV8 Member) for viewing the majority of the material, which seems a bit of shame given the generosity of other companies when sharing their working process and methodology.

A Human Earthquake

7e0981b0-3b29-4d4f-851f-5dd61a7bbc32-2060x1236In celebration of his 90th birthday, theatre critic Michael Billington has written Still centre stage at 90: Peter Brook, human earthquake of modern theatre for The Guardian. A super article that looks back at a career that has spanned 70 years, and shows no sign of slowing down.

The record books insist that Peter Brook will be 90 on Saturday. Personally, I find it hard to believe. I last bumped into Brook about 18 months ago at a new play about Kashmir at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I casually asked if he was staying in London for long. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve got to be back in Paris to rehearse tomorrow morning.”

There was something in the urgency of his tone that confirmed Brook is a director who lives totally in the present and who regards all theatre as a work-in-progress.

Brook himself hates looking back over his career: not so long ago he told me with horror of a letter he had received from a West End producer asking him to restage his famous white-box 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience.

But, even if Brook is immersed in the here-and-now, the rest of us are entitled to put his 70-year-long career in perspective….(continue reading)

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Lacking Definition

3.190241Like anything else, the academic and theoretical study of theatre-making is always bound by a shared lexicon. However definitions sometimes lead us astray. Take Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt for instance.  When John Willett published his seminal english language Brecht on Theatre in 1964, he translated Verfremdungseffekt as the alienation effect, which for many years led to a mis-interpretation of what Brecht actually meant. Subsequently it has been re-translated as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation or distancing effect, the latter having become generally accepted as nearer Brecht’s original intent. Another would be the definition of the role of the Dramaturge, which differs almost from theatre to theatre, let alone country to country. In this case, it has recently been removed as an area of study from the International Baccalaureate’s Theatre Arts course simply because there is no one internationally accepted standard definition.

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Currently one area of performance that is struggling to find a standard definition is Immersive Theatre, which continues to grow in popularity around the world. In an article for Everything Theatre published a few weeks ago, Marni Appleton asks the question What even is immersive theatre?

Traditional theatre is making room for a different type of performance. More and more often, audiences are invited to throw themselves headfirst into a show rather than simply sit back and watch. But what does this mean? With everything from laptops to restaurants being described as ‘immersive’…… what we should expect from this type of theatre.

Punchdrunk are widely considered to be the pioneers of immersive theatre, having been at it since 2000. There is no such thing as a typical Punchdrunk show; projects range from interactive audio-tours to secret collaborations with musicians, so it is not always easy to identify the common ‘immersive thread’. Their most recent, large-scale UK show, The Drowned Man, was like being inside a dream. The venue started life as an abandoned postal sorting office, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The award-winning design transformed the space and no detail was overlooked: drawers were filled; real trees were brought in for the forests; authentic smells and textures were sourced, all of which heightened the senses and gave audience members very surreal experiences. The space could be treated as one giant art installation – it was possible to get a sense of the narrative without crossing paths with a single performer – or you could chase one of the many characters across four floors. The choice was yours. There is so much in a Punchdrunk show that you can never discover everything in a single visit; just one of the reasons Punchdrunk enjoys repeat visitors and dedicated fans, who love the fact there is always something new to be found.

Performances in The Drowned Man were mostly physical, set to an impressive (and loud) cinematic score, so opportunities to converse with the characters were thin on the ground. If you were very lucky, you might be selected for a sought-after ‘one on one’ experience, where a character would draw you into a room and interact with you alone. But aside from this, audience interaction with performers was fairly minimal. There were no opportunities to influence their journeys or the direction of the story; the next scene always continued as scripted.

Does this affect whether or not the show is immersive? David Frias-Robles, co-founder of the theatre company Myriad & Co thinks so. For him, audiences have to be able to change or influence the narrative of the show, for it to be considered immersive. ‘Of course there has to be a basic structure,’ he says. ‘But there also has to be some form of choice for the audience.’

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David has worked extensively in immersive theatre. As well as establishing Myriad & Co, he has worked as actor and director on a range of projects including The Backstage Tour, shows with Secret Cinema and epoch’s The Factory, soon to be seen at VAULT Festival. One of David’s recent projects, Canvas City saw Canvas Bar in Old Street transformed into a 1930s speakeasy. Audience members came to the bar dressed in clothes from the era and were encouraged to adopt their own persona. As the night unfolded, the lines between performer and audience became blurred. There were three crucial, pre-planned moments, but in between those, audience members were able to aid and influence each character’s journey.

The only drinks available on the night were a selection of whisky-based cocktails served in tiny jars. This added to the authentic feel of the night, which was surprisingly effective, considering very little of the bar had been changed. For David, it is these details that are crucial. His idea of an immersive show is one where the audience is in costume, where a narrative has been built up before the performance itself, and where every single detail that might betray the experience as a performance has been eliminated. While this is almost impossible to achieve, the best immersive theatre, he says, comes very close.

Coney is one of the companies producing ‘audience-led’ theatre. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days used the audience as the cast in shows that were part-game, part-improvisation and partly structured. There are a number of experiences that operate in a similar way, such as Heist by differencEngine and the recent New Atlantis by LAStheatre. But if everyone is playing and no one is watching, do these events still count as theatre? And if they are, this begs the question of live action role-play, murder mysteries and other similar games. Do these come under the umbrella of immersive theatre too?

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With audience-led, fully participatory work at one end of the immersive spectrum, there are also supposedly immersive shows that sit right down at the other end of the spectrum. The word ‘immersive’ is often used in relation to shows that simply have non-traditional aspects or some immersive elements. The Roof at the National Theatre was a non-traditional performance staged in a car park, which made clever use of audio by giving each audience member a fancy pair of headphones. However, there was no interaction with the characters and there wasn’t even anywhere to go; viewers simply stood and watched the show instead of sitting down. Whilst this may have been different and exciting for immersive novices, it would have been a disappointment to anyone wanting to get properly stuck in. Many would argue that this was not representative of the genre.

While immersive theatre is difficult to define precisely, it is certainly enjoying a boom at the moment. Is it just a phase? Perhaps. But this writer hopes not. Immersive shows are pushing and breaking down the boundaries of theatre and attracting new audiences – many who aren’t regular theatregoers. As audiences, we should expect the unexpected from this type of show, but what does that mean in practical terms? Great theatre is often risky, and immersive shows are no exception. But throw yourself into the experience, and it might just be a revelation.

In a short, but instructive piece on its website, arts venue The Space in East London, attempted to answer the same question as Appleton:

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Many people go to the theatre to lose themselves in the production, to forget their everyday worries and troubles and be transported into another world. However, no kind of theatre transports an audience quite like immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the audience are not merely passive bystanders. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and they are in the middle of the action.

In an immersive theatre production, the audience in some way plays a role, whether that is the role of witness or the role of an actual character. They may be allowed to roam and explore the performance space as the performance happens around them, allowing them to decide what they see and what they skip. They might be herded from room to room so they see the key scenes. They might even be invited to become a more active part of the performance. The lines between performer and audience and between performance and life are blurred. The audience is placed within the environment of the story and therefore play witness front and centre to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium.

However, this lack of separation can cause anxiety. If an audience member is not expecting to become part of the performance or is uncomfortable with that idea, it can be very off-putting so there must be some form of consent between the performer and the audience. Whether that’s the conscious decision to take a performer’s outstretched hand or knowing that one has the safety net of being able to back away from the performance, there must still exist some form of separation and boundaries between performance and audience for the benefit of everyone involved.

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The origins of immersive theatre go all the way back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century. Call-and-response, when a leader puts out a call and an audience calls back a pre-ordained response, has long been a concept in music, adding a participatory element. In the centuries that followed, things like murder mystery theatres and haunted houses also put their intended audience into an environment and allowed them choice in how they viewed the story. Even traditional proscenium theatre started to adapt some immersive or interactive elements. In 1985, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, required that the audience vote on who killed the titular character, spurring one of seven possible endings.

Well-known UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk are known as pioneers of the form of immersive theatre. While they have been producing immersive and promenade theatre since 2000 in the UK, they and immersive theatre as a genre meteorically shot to worldwide fame after Sleep No More, their 1930’s film noir adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was unanimously well-received in New York.

Since the success of Sleep No More, countless immersive productions have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, these include Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a techno-rock musical adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Then She Fell, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a mental hospital. London’s immersive theatre scene has recently featured an all-night production of Macbeth in a block of flats; Leviathan, a production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the audience stands in for the crew of the ship chasing after the famed whale; and The Drowned Man, a combination of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust set in a 1960’s movie studio and produced by Punchdrunk.

No doubt the debate will continue long and loud as the form evolves.

Scene But Not Heard

mfQueen-bThis year I am teaching two new courses, both of which lay a greater emphasis on student understanding of the theatre production processes than I have previously had to teach. The roles of performer, director and collaborator have always been at the heart of my classroom, with design at the periphery. However, for me personally as a theatre-maker,  I have always enjoyed the creative process of theatre design and the challenge of bringing a sense of place, time, theme and atmosphere to life for an audience. I wanted to find a way of teaching the art of the designer – lighting, costume and set – that explained the fundamentals without drowning my students in unnecessary theory. Take a look at any published text on stage lighting and you will know what I mean. So I set off on a journey that was fascinating and hugely informative and today’s post is to share some of what I have found.

The internet is an infinite resource it seems in this area, so my first share is about simple, informative basics that come from a series of lectures from Melanie Blood, Professor of Theatre at GENESCO, New York State. The lectures I have read, on theatre lighting, costume and set design are a real 101 primer. Each one is divided under 4 headings – Goals, Tools, Process and Historical Context – of each design area. Simple and to the point, with just the right amount of technical language and readily accessible examples.

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The second is a series of interviews with theatre designers published by Exeunt. Spread across 18 months, Exeunt talks to Nick PayneChloe Lamford, Es DevlinAmanda Stoodley and Jon Bausor about their work and inspirations. All five pieces are worth a read and cover a wide range of design styles and spaces.

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Finally, following a new publication,  World Scenography, 1990-2005 by Peter McKinnon and Eric Fielding, The Guardian offers two galleries of images of stunning designs here and here. The World Scenography series (the first covered the period 1975 to 1990) is an official project of OISTAT, the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians, and is an attempt to document the most significant and influential theatrical set, costume, and lighting designs from around the world. My copy is in the post.

Endangered Species?

downloadContinuing from the previous post, I wanted to share the final article mentioned, written by Lyn Gardner in her Theatre Blog for The Guardian,  Is the playwright dead? Most of the theatre my students make is collaborative and new, applying and testing the creative skills and performance theory they have learned. However, they are also empowered by interpreting a written text and are challenged by that process in equal measure. As always, I find myself agreeing with Gardner. I have left her original links in the article as they lead to further interesting reading.

Is there an anti-writer trend in British theatre? Only if you insist on a very narrow definition of what constitutes new writing and fail to cherish playwriting in all its rich variety

“There has been a shift of opinion against playwriting, in favour of collective methods of theatre. The very activity of playwriting has been attacked as individualistic, undemocratic and even immoral,” declared playwright David Edgar when it was announced that he would be this year’s visiting professor in drama studies at Oxford and giving lectures and hosting discussions in February.

Blimey! Edgar talks of an “anti-writer trend”. That sounds serious and worrying. I’d like to think that he was being a little tongue in cheek because, after all, he also pointed out that “for the first time in at least 100 years, new work has overtaken the old work in the repertoire”, which can surely only be a good thing for writers of all kinds. Then there’s the roll call of people he’s invited to take part in discussions over the week, who include, among others, Bryony Lavery, David Greig and Chris Goode, who definitely all write plays but who often also create work in many different ways via collaboration, and for whom text plays distinct roles in different contexts.

When I was talking to Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly recently, he talked eloquently about working with Bryony Lavery on Stockholm and how she expressed the wish to write silence, condensing a scene to the point where “words were redundant”. That’s still very much writing in my book, and I bet most other people’s, too.

Frantic Assembly

Frantic Assembly

But even if what Edgar is saying is just a provocation, I’m really not sure that talking about an “anti-writer trend” is either true or helpful. After all, the adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Let the Right One In are still distinctly scripted plays however many other tools have been utilised to make them. And why wouldn’t all theatre-makers – and that includes playwrights – use all the tools available to them that they find helpful for a particular piece of work? The danger is that Edgar’s statement sets up the idea that different kinds of theatre are in opposition to each other, and that the individual playwright must be at odds and in competition with those making work collectively or collaboratively or using other kinds of theatrical languages.

It’s not a case that one kind of theatre-making invalidates another or steals money and resources away from others. There is room for all comers and different ways of working because different is good and invigorating – and variety adds to the richness of our theatre culture. What suits some as a way of working will not necessarily suit others or perhaps only at particular points in their career for particular projects. Bryony Lavery can work fruitfully with Frantic Assembly and write plays entirely on her own, too. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.

David Tennant, Hamlet

David Tennant, Hamlet

Does the fact that we have a variety of methods of working mean that the individual playwright with a singular vision is an endangered species? Of course not. You only have to look at the programmes of our new writing theatres to see that’s not the case. The fact that……. theatres across the country may also programme other kinds of work, some of it made collaboratively, simply reflects the fact that most of those now directly involved in new writing understand that what is needed is a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing. That doesn’t threaten the playwright; it potentially liberates and provides more opportunities.

David Edgar’s week of lectures and discussions do sound fascinating – you can read the programme and participants here. They will all be published online so watch this space.

Moving On

NT DiscoverSo the first post of 2015 is a an easy one. A few weeks ago I shared a video about creating modern interpretations of Greek Chorus, made by the National Theatre in the UK (Group Chat). Since then they have released 3 more videos about various aspects of creating chorus as part of their Discover National Theatre strand:

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Also part of Discover is the series of videos about Movement Direction, which are also a great little watch:

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All short, but perfectly formed and super starting resources.

Little Voices

A fascinating project has recently wrapped up in London. A group of journalists from The Guardian newspaper, collaborated with theatre makers from the Royal Court Theatre to make a series of six ‘micro’ State of the Nation plays plays, running under the banner, Off The Page.  There is a video introduction to the series here.

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Each of the plays explores a different topic. Britain Isn’t Eating satirizes the UK government’s approach to food banks and the ‘feckless poor’. Devil in the Detail explores the emotional relationship that women have with clothes. PPE examines the power of politicians’ physical gestures – and the failure to engineer real change after the financial crisis.The Funereal Game explores racial tensions on and off the football pitch and the idea that sport embodies the country’s identity crisis. Finally, Groove is in the Heart examines the changing relationship with music and technology. For each of the plays there is a making of article which you can click-through to via the links above. The videos of the plays are embedded there too. Whilst obviously written about UK orientated issues, the themes are definitely global and all the pieces are really interesting.

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Each play used the same basic staging, but designed individually. A photo montage of the different designs makes interesting viewing here.

Say It As It Is

little-revolution-posterTwo audio recording shares today. Firstly an interview, courtesy of Theatre Voice, by theatre critic Matt Trueman with verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe (and director Joe Hill-Gibbon) about her play Little Revolution. Performed earlier this year and receiving very polarised reviews, it explores the 2011 London riots. The interview gives a fascinating insight into the processes of writing and staging verbatim theatre. Blythe also writes about her approaches in The Telegraph, It looked a bit hairy. But I had to go. Interestingly, the same newspaper also gave Little Revolution one of it’s best reviews, calling it Absolutely Compelling. Truman’s own review of the play is a little more interrogating.

The second share, and not wholly unconnected,  is an interview with writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy (and others) about the life of theatrical maverick Joan Littlewood, whose centenary has been marked this year by many events, not least the Fun Palace initiative, started by Duffy herself. Again a great listen about a woman who made theatre differently.

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A Roaring Success

Lion King Las VegasAs those of you who read Theatre Room regularly will know that I’m no great fan of musical theatre.  There are however some exceptions, one being The Lion Kong. I first saw it in Los Angeles many years ago, and have been urging people to go and see it ever since. It first opened in Minneapolis in 1997, quickly transferring to Broadway. in 1999 it opened in London at the Lyceum Theatre, where it is till running 15 years later. In fact, it is currently playing in 10 cities world-wide. In its 17 years it has been seen by an estimated 75 million people and taken $6.2 billion, making it the highest grossing musical ever. Impressive figures indeed.

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In a great article by David Gritten in The Telegraph, How The Lion King became the most successful stage show of all time he quite rightly points to the original director, Julie Taymor, as the creative genius behind the show.

It’s easy to overlook, what with all the trumpeting of huge grosses and audience figures, what a radical piece of theatre The Lion King is, and always was.

Credit for this goes to the prime mover of this stage version, director Julie Taymor, who came from avant-garde, ritual and experimental theatre, and had already used masks and puppetry in other productions. Taymor also helped design the costumes for the Lion King, and even wrote the lyrics for one of its songs, Endless Night.

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She has created a world that is fiercely non-literal, often to moving and wondrous effect. She makes no attempt to disguise the fact that these animals are moved and performed by humans. A drought on the African plain is conveyed by a circle of blue silk gradually vanishing by being pulled through a hole in the stage. When a lioness weeps, she pulls lengths of white ribbon from her eyes. Taymor evokes a waterfall using a huge sheet of billowing silk. A score of actors stride on stage, boxes on their head with long grass sprouting from them; this is Taymor’s way of representing the African savannah.

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All of which seems a long way from the animated film and video of The Lion King, which proved immensely successful for Disney in the 1990s. They’re agreeable entertainments, based on a hero-myth story redolent of Hamlet. As a young lion cub, Simba is hoodwinked by his malevolent uncle Scar into believing he was responsible for his father the king Mufasa’s death. Simba flees before returning as an adult to reclaim his birthright from Scar, who has installed himself as king.

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This is all fine as far as it goes, yet there’s a cosiness and reassurance about the film that Taymor withholds; in the stage version there is simply more at stake, along with a recognition that life is fragile. She also gave far greater emphasis to the film’s female characters. There’s a tough-mindedness about her method of story-telling; it’s surprising that Disney, to its great credit, approved such a radical reboot of the film.

Gritten’s article is well worth a read in its entirety here.  Another one, this time by Adam Sherwin here in The Independent explores the money-making side of the The Lion King. Apparently Sirs Tim Rice and Elton John, the composers and librettists of the musical, have made a whopping US$120 million apiece from the show!

To finish with,  it was recently announced that Disney have adapted the musical for schools which will be licensed for performance from January 2015. Disney, Rice and John will no doubt need to get deeper pockets.

By way of a post script, I should say that the show’s appeal for me is the ingenious way in which the animal characters have been brought to life with puppetry.  The man behind most of the puppets is Michael Curry, and there are a couple of interesting interviews with him here and here about his work on the show .

Soviet By Design

c3ada36768c4bcfd35c1fc16ab83985bMy first share today was published this week in The Guardian. Written by Oliver Wainwright, it explores theatre design in the Soviet Union in the early 20th Century, which is currently the focus of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A critical period in the development of stage design, Wainwright’s article, Russia’s stage revolution: when theatre was a hotbed for impossibly space-age design talks about how artists created radical sets and costumes for a futuristic new era of theatre that are said to have inspired Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

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A square-headed figure stands in a jagged harlequin costume, like a toddler’s drawing of a Christmas tree, beside a red-clothed character with black spines emerging from his limbs. There is a portly green-skinned man bursting out of a tight red vest, while another figure’s body swells from a triangular skirt in a big blue bulge.

Set against a mysterious monochrome backdrop of triangles and squares, these were the costume designs of then little-known Kazimir Malevich for the world’s first “futurist opera,” Victory Over the Sun, produced in St Petersburg in 1913. Complete with a libretto in the experimental “zaum” language – a kind of primeval Slavic mother-tongue, mixed with birdsong and cosmic utterances – it infuriated audiences, who reacted with violent outrage.

Malevich was not deterred. The stage sets formed the basis for his first Black Square painting, and the foundations for his fractured visual language of suprematism, one of the defining movements of the period. It was here in these gnomic theatre designs that he began his urgent pursuit of the “supremacy of pure artistic feeling”, of geometric splinters flying through limitless space, fuelled by the impending trauma of revolution.

These striking drawings form the opening to a new free exhibition in the V&A’s theatre and performance galleries, which traces the effect of war and revolution on Russian avant-garde theatre design, from 1913–33, a period that saw an earthquake of artistic transformation.

Comprising 160 works by 45 designers, much of what’s on show has been unearthed from the dusty depths of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum archive in Moscow, some exhibited in public here in London for the first time – and it is a thrilling hoard.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

Facing off against Malevich are the early costume designs of Vladimir Tatlin, who would go on to dream up the spiralling skeleton of the Monument to the Third International, a plan for a gargantuan double-helix structure that would have loomed 400m above St Petersburg. While Malevich was brewing up a universe of dynamic shards, Tatlin’s designs – for operas with nostalgic titles such as Life for the Tsar and His Disobedient Son Adolf – reveal the beginnings of his constructivist style.

These counterpoints set the tone for a show that reveals the breadth of artistic styles spawned in these tumultuous years, with the theatre proving a hotbed of experimentation and a powerful vehicle of revolutionary propaganda.Women designers loom large, with the dazzling work of Alexandra Exterfeaturing extensively, from her bold reinventions of classics like Romeo and Juliet, to impossibly futuristic costumes for Aelita, one of the first ever sci-fi films, made in 1924. Based on a Tolstoy novel, it tells the story of an engineer who travels to Mars, falls in love with the Queen of the Martians, and organises a revolution. The space-queen was conceived as a Soviet Barbarella, clothed in a swirling dress of orbiting loops, topped with a many-pronged head-dress that gives her the look of a human TV aerial. It exudes the excitement of what the promised revolution would bring, the humble engineer discovering a brave new world through hard work. Utterly groundbreaking for its time, Exter’s alien set designs would go on to inform the dreamy aesthetic of Flash Gordon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

“I want to burn with the spirit of the times,” declared Vsevolod Meyerhold, another influential figure of the period, and one of most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet theatre. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1918 and became an official of the theatre division of the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, trying to radicalise Russian theatres under Bolshevik control. Developing what he called “biomechanics”, he championed a form of acting in which bodily expression was all, teaching his students gymnastics and circus skills, in a bid to transform the theatre from a place of naturalism and emotion to a full-blown fairground spectacle.

“Meyerhold laid the foundations for modern physical theatre, and groups like Complicite,” says curator Kate Bailey, “as well as a lot of the techniques of projection and moving sets that we take for granted as part of contemporary theatre design.”

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

A key to realising his vision was Lyubov Popova, the daughter of a textile merchant who had been a member of Malevich’s Supremus art group from 1914-16. She produced a spectacular moving set for his production of The Magnanimous Cuckold in 1922, a model of which takes pride of place in the exhibition. The play follows the trials of a miller who suspects his wife of being unfaithful and pursues her lovers through the village, and Popova transforms the mill into an all-consuming acting machine, a thrilling landscape of rotating cogs and wheels.

Under the influence of Meyerhold, theatrical characters were reduced to types, emotion and psychological experience substituted for the gawp of physical and mechanical prowess. Similar narratives recur, in which “impure” characters of merchants and royalty, capitalists and priesthood, face off against “pure” peasants and sailors, the old order trounced by the newly awoken masses. Costumes of the old world are heavy and clumsy, set against the thrusting, cubo-futurist lines of the new Communist utopia.

It all comes to a satirical climax in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s comedy, The Bedbug, in which the brave Bolshevik protagonist, Prisypkin, is cryogenically frozen in an impossibly modern-looking spacesuit – to designs by Alexander Rodchenko – to be thawed when the ideal Communist world has been attained in 1979. Severely underwhelmed when he awakes, he finds a bedbug on his body, which becomes his only friend.

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

It is an appropriately gloomy end to the exhibition, which concludes with the rise of Stalin, who presided over a return to socialist realism, and the accompanying vicious backlash against the avant-garde. The final piece on show is a miraculous wooden and plaster model for Mayakovsky’s satirical play, Mystery-Bouffe, directed by Meyerhold, which depicts the North Pole, where the earth’s last survivors have voyaged, to be offered the choice between heaven and hell. They decline heaven, in favour of the promised land of the Communist paradise.

It was not to be so for the two leaders of the avant garde under Stalin: disillusioned and driven to despair, Mayakovsky shot himself, while Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed. “Theatre is not a mirror, but a magnifying glass,” Mayakovsky once said. And their powerful lens clearly looked a little too closely for the regime’s comfort.

The V and A exhibition, Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design 1913-1933 has an associated Pintrest Board with some great images, as well as a blog.