Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Gormley to Gaga - A Design For Life At Summerhall

When Lady Gaga embarked on the early stages of her Monster Ball tour in 
2009, it not only marked the provocative pop princess' crossover into 
the major league with a spectacular show described by some as the first 
ever pop electro opera. In it's look, Monster Ball also unwittingly 
formed a bridge between a pub theatre in Shepherd's Bush, art-punk band 
Wire, the Royal Opera House, lingerie label Agent Provocateur and the 
closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. All of these, including 
Monster Ball, featured the work of theatre designer Es Devlin.

Fans can get a taste of Devlin's work for Monster Ball in 
Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga – Designing For 
Performance, an exhibition of some thirty-three major British designers 
which opened at Summerhall in Edinburgh this weekend.

“It was a very interesting point in her trajectory,” says Devlin. “For 
Monster Ball we were given an initial budget, then almost every day it 
went higher. It was designed for a specific size of stage, but as 
Gaga's popularity grew, she started being able to sell out arenas. The 
first night was in an arena in Montreal, and I don’t think it would be 
as thrilling to get involved in a moment like that now. There’s nothing 
quite like being there at that first moment of a new energy in art.”

As well as Devlin's work, the exhibition features designs for dance by 
sculptor Anthony Gormley and Rae Smith's design work for the original 
National Theatre production of War Horse. The mix of models and 
drawings contained in a series of purpose-built vitrines spread out 
across Summerhall's vast interior was originally seen by almost 150,000 
people during its run at the V&A museum in London earlier this year.

Organised by the Society of British Designers every four years as a 
showcase for the best of British design, this year's exhibition was 
initially shown in Cardiff, with some 206 designers contributing. 
Thirteen of these were selected to represent the UK at the Prague 
quadrennial before being expanded to its current scale.

“Theatre design is a backstage profession that never really gets 
exposed, “ according to curator Peter Farley, “and one of my bug-bears 
is that all too often the director gets the credit for the design and 
how something looks. But stage design isn’t just about decoration. It’s 
about adding another visual narrative to everything else that’s 
happening onstage. What I’m very pleased about is putting theatre 
designers and theatre artists into a fine art context, but we have work 
by architects, sculptors, painters and designers, so the edges are 
getting blurred a lot more.”

Devlin is a perfect example of this. Having studied music from a young 
age, Devlin first gained a degree in English Literature before 
embarking on a fine art foundation course at Central St Martins 
College, where she moved onto the stage design course. It was while at 
St Martins in 1992 that Devlin assisted Damien Hirst on Agongo, an 
installation presented at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh.

Devlin won the Linbury Prize for Stage Design, embarking on her first 
professional job in 1995 directing a production of Edward 11 set in a 
swimming pool for  the Bolton Octagon Theatre. This led to work at 
London pub theatre, The Bush, then being run by Mike Bradwell, who 
hired Devlin to design Mark O'Rowe's breakthrough play, Howie The 
Rookie, which transferred to the Traverse Theatre for an Edinburgh 
Festival Fringe run in 1999. Devlin worked with Max Stafford-Clark's 
Out of Joint company, designing a revival of Andrea Dunbar's play, 
Rita, Sue and Bob Too for the company, as well as a remarkable 
African-set site-specific take on Macbeth. Both of these again visited 
the Traverse,  with Macbeth occupying the claustrophobic Underbelly 
space beneath the Central Library.

Rae Smith also has Scottish connections, and, long before War Horse, 
designed shows for TAG, 7:84 Scotland and The Tron. Smith has chartered 
a similar trajectory to Devlin, who has moved from the National 
Theatre, the RSC and English National Opera to Pet Shop Boys musical, 
Closer to Heaven, David McVicar's production of Salome for the Royal 
Opera House, and a series of steamy ads directed by Mike Figgis for 
high-class lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur.

Devlin's move into music came after Edinburgh-born director of the 
South Bank, Alex Poots, currently in charge of Manchester International 
Festival and the bi-annual Armory Show exhibition in New York, 
approached her to provide a set for art-punk band, Wire, in parallel 
with Jake and Dinos Chapman.

“It was pretty much impossible for them to perform in,” Devlin says 
now. “They couldn’t see each other, they couldn’t hear each other and 
they couldn’t get out, but it looked good.”

It certainly looked good to Kanye West, who was impressed enough by 
Devlin's contribution to the Wire show to hire her to design his 2005 
Touch The Sky tour.

“Again,” says Devlin, “it was a very interesting time to be working 
with Kanye, and the nice thing about that is a working relationship has 
developed, and we’re going to be doing something next year. Kanye’s got 
a mind that moves at the speed of light, and he gets very impatient 
with people who can’t keep up, so it’s good to have a short-hand with 
him now.”

Devlin has gone on to work with Muse, Mika, Goldfrapp, Nitin Sawhney, 
Take That, Lenny Kravitz and Rihanna. As with West, Devlin has 
continued her working relationship with David McVicar, and in 2014 will 
be transferring his production of Les Troyens to La Scala in Milan. In 
the meantime, Devlin may skirt around her involvement with epic flop, 
Batman Live, but her contribution to the Olympic closing ceremony is 
clearly something of a pinnacle.

“Everything seems very easy now compared to the London Olympics 
ceremony,” she says. “I was delighted I was involved in that moment of 
history, because it was one. But it also brought with it enormous 
amounts of pressure, because we were constantly having to rework things 
as we went along. It would have been wonderful if necessary if we 
could’ve had control of things from the beginning, but the music 
industry hierarchies don’t work like that, and sometimes the result of 
that was disappointing. Let’s just say that some of the artists really 
got into the spirit of the event, while others just wanted to play 
their song. You wanted to say to  them, can’t you put your own sense of 
self-importance aside for one minute and play that song from 1986 that 
says something about
British culture.”

Devlin may or may not be talking about George Michael, who premiered a 
new song at the event. Even with such dealings with pop divas, however, 
any further collaborations with Lady Gaga sound unlikely.

“I think she's kind of munched me up and moved on,” Devlin says. “I 
think she's probably munched a lot of people up. Maybe she'll run out 
and have to start again.”

Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga – Designing For 
Performance, Summerhall, Edinburgh until February 22nd 2013
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, December 18th 2012

ends

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