A stitch in time

Staging a costume drama? Take as many liberties as you like with the set, but keep those corsets and ruffles as is


The past is so in right now.

When Oscar Wilde wrote An Ideal Husband , he set the play in “the present”, and that instruction still stands for those who revive it 120 years later. The thought of transposing the play to today, though, seems a bit ludicrous. How could a drama that depends on the politics and customs of a bygone era, where one plot point revolves around the delivery of a letter, transpose to the digital age? And besides, how would the political classes, dowagers and dandies of Wilde’s London choose to dress in 2014?

The current production at the Gate has actually undertaken a modest feat of time travelling, but you’d have to be a couture sleuth to know it. Instead of 1895, the play has been brought forward to 1900, “so as to avoid the enormous sleeves of 1895/96”, says costume designer Peter O’Brien.

This exacting attention to period detail highlights an expectation we have for theatrical costumes, which have remained more or less dutifully authentic to their era since the 20th century. Interestingly, the set design for the Gate’s play is not so hung up on specifics: a slightly abstracted space of mirrored and manoeuvrable walls that can resemble a panopticon and sometimes a birdcage.

O’Brien’s costumes are undoubtedly beautiful, a combination of inspiration and recreation. But whereas set designer Francis O’Connor has been granted some latitude, O’Brien has to haggle: to play for time.

Do we hold costumes to different standards? It appears so. Last year, O’Connor created both set and costumes for Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Gate. The space had a funky conceit, lightly indicating place but avoiding realism with a backdrop collage of erotic photography. The costumes, though, were as real as they get: every sleeve was appropriate to 1894.

You can make contemporary points with the set, it seems, but the clothing is more stitched up. A sumptuous fidelity to history is their selling point; the escapism of seeing people slip into something a little less comfortable.

O’Brien, for instance, is a celebrated fashion designer who has designed theatre costumes for some 10 productions, all period dramas, since 2005. His success has been to realise historical fashion with luxurious and sensuous detail (the Abbey’s 2011 Pygmalion was a marvellous highpoint) while rarely taking thematic liberties. (His work for Gate’s A Woman of No Importance, a moral satire costumed in ever-darkening shades of grey, was an exception.)

At a certain point, though, the rigidity of costume dramas can begin to chafe. When the Abbey staged Major Barbara last year, the performance seemed subservient to the tailoring, all correct posture and starched collars. An Ideal Husband also bears some of that stiffness, which can get in the way of the play. Few designers would stage Shakespeare with such fervent attention to Elizabethan ruffs, because it seems distractingly so remote. (The Abbey’s new Twelfth Night, designed by the Emma Fraser, has gone for “contemporary with a twist”.)

It would be refreshing to see Wilde and Shaw more regularly liberated from their eras, and particularly the effect on their wardrobes, budged through playful conceits, as Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh did for Rough Magic’s 2010 production of Earnest ; or vigorously sensationalised like Antony McDonald’s outré Earnest opera year. How would Lord Goring, Wilde’s heroically idle and self-obsessed dandy, look as a present-day hipster, for instance, and what would it say about us now?

Fidelity is admirable, but it’s theatre’s bolder fashion statements that prevent costume dramas from becoming worn out.

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