Arts for All Appeal

22 October 2021

 

As Arts Centre Melbourne prepares to welcome Bell Shakespeare back into our theatres in 2022, we revisit some of the company’s striking costumes from the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Earlier this year, the Collections team made the most of opportunities to be on site to digitise and document a range of objects. This included studio photography of Bell Shakespeare costumes and work on a new acquisition that highlights design creativity. Curator Margaret Marshall goes behind the scenes to share some of the items that have been in the spotlight.

 

A photography studio containing two photography flash lights with softboxes, a white wall and white background. A photographer is photographing a floor-length red coat with double-breasted buttons, mounted on a headless mannequin, while an assistant adjust the robe.

 

Photographing a robe worn by John Bell in Bell Shakespeare's 1998 production of ‘King Lear’

 

Fit for a king

Bell Shakespeare has been bringing the works of William Shakespeare to life for 30 years. The company celebrates the timeless quality and universal meaning of Shakespeare’s plays in innovative and dynamic productions for Australian audiences.

Bell Shakespeare first donated material to the Australian Performing Arts Collection in 2001. This major acquisition included a large archive of documents and photographs representing the company’s first 10 years. Costumes and accessories were also collected to represent key productions, performers and designers associated with the company.

Two crowns from this initial donation, worn by company founder John Bell in Richard III and King Lear, are unusual and contrasting interpretations of this traditional symbol of royalty.

 

Two photos of a crown and helmet worn by John Bell in the title role of ‘Richard III’, which has a gold structure around a black feathered headdress.

 

Crown and helmet worn by John Bell in the title role of ‘Richard III’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1992
Designed by Sue Field
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2001
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

John Bell directed and starred in the company’s first staging of Richard III in 1992. He described his vision for the play as ‘strong on metaphor, animal imagery and nightmare’. Designer Sue Field created a tall cage-like crown for the malevolent monarch. In the play’s battle scene, this was placed on top of a motorcycle helmet with a plume of rigid bristles, suggesting Richard’s heraldic symbol of the boar. This headdress, worn with armour made of computer components, clearly identified the character even amid the chaos and fury of combat.

 

A production image of John Bell and cast in ‘Richard III’, showing an army carrying spears being exhorted ahead by a passionate Richard III.

 

John Bell and cast in ‘Richard III’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1992
Photograph by Arunas Photography
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2001
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

In 1998, Barrie Kosky directed Bell Shakespeare’s controversial and challenging production of King Lear. Filled with extraordinary visual imagery, violence and heightened volume, it divided audiences. Kosky’s surreal fairytale of madness starred John Bell in the title role and Deborah Mailman as Cordelia.

Peter Corrigan’s striking design for the production incorporated bright fur costumes and elaborate headdresses, including the crown he described as a ‘scarlet velvet turban’. King Lear’s crown is important not only as a symbol of his kingdom, but also his state of mind. This heavily bejewelled version with trailing lengths of pearls featured at the beginning of the play and starkly contrasted with a fraying, knitted beanie worn during Lear’s descent into madness.

 

A costume detail of a crown made in the Russian style, covered in red velvet, jewels and pearls; and a production image showing the crown being worn by John Bell in the title role of ‘King Lear’.

 

Left: Crown worn by John Bell in the title role of ‘King Lear’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1998. Designed by Peter Corrigan
Right: John Bell as King Lear, 1998. Photograph by Jeff Busby
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2001
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Colourful comedy

Bell Shakespeare donated additional costumes in 2010 to mark the company’s 20th anniversary. This selection includes costumes, accessories and hand-painted masks from a lively version of The Comedy of Errors. First directed by John Bell in 2002, this production toured across Australia in 2004 and to the United Kingdom in 2006.

 

A production image of Blazey Best (Adriana) and Patricia Cotter (Luciana) in ‘The Comedy of Errors’. The two characters sit on makeshift stools, talking.

 

Blazey Best (Adriana) and Patricia Cotter (Luciana) in ‘The Comedy of Errors’, Bell Shakespeare, 2002
Photograph by Heidrun Löhr
Courtesy of Bell Shakespeare

 

A mannequin wearing the wig and costume worn by Blazey Best as Adriana in ‘The Comedy of Errors’.

 

Costume worn by Blazey Best as Adriana in ‘The Comedy of Errors’, Bell Shakespeare, 2002
Designed by Jennie Tate
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2010
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Shakespeare’s earliest comic play is filled with mistaken identities, double meanings and much mayhem. The action unfolded on a set designed by Jennie Tate that featured a Turkish bazaar. Her colourful costumes combined traditional elements and contemporary styling, adding a quirky sense of fun. The costume worn by Blazey Best as Adriana demonstrates Tate’s creative use of fabrics and textures for this production. This ensemble, from the curly orange wig to a pair of pom-pom adorned shoes, is a notable example of a complete theatrical costume.

 

A detail of the costume worn by Blazey Best as Adriana in ‘The Comedy of Errors’, showing the sash worn over a long jacket; and the bangles and shoes worn by the character.

 

Costume accessories worn by Blazey Best as Adriana in ‘The Comedy of Errors’, Bell Shakespeare, 2002
Designed by Jennie Tate
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2010
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

A voyage of discovery

Bell Shakespeare’s history is also represented within the Australian Performing Arts Collection through material acquired from other sources. Recently, costume designer Edie Kurzer donated her working files for Bell Shakespeare’s 1995 production of Pericles.

This acquisition includes reference material used for inspiration, initial notes and concept sketches, fabric swatches, and final costume designs. The material provides insights into Kurzer’s creative process and complements costumes from the production already held in the Collection.

 

The original, illustrated costume design by Edie Kurzer for Thaisa in ‘Pericles’, including notes from the artist.

 

Costume design by Edie Kurzer for Thaisa in ‘Pericles’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1994
Gift of Edie Kurzer, 2021
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The costume worn by Jennifer Kent as Thaisa in ‘Pericles’, mounted on a headless, white mannequin, and a zoomed-in detail of the costume.

 

Dress worn by Jennifer Kent as Thaisa in ‘Pericles’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1995
Designed by Edie Kurzer
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2001
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

John Bell’s production of Pericles sought simplicity in its staging. Drawing inspiration from North African clothing, Kurzer designed costumes that were practical for the quick changes required by actors playing multiple roles, as well as being visually representative of the story. The styles and colours of costumes were varied for each of the locations visited during Pericles’ voyage. Costumes featuring striped fabrics were created for the setting of Pentapolis, which was playfully referred to in Kurzer’s drawings as ‘stripy town’.

 

The original, illustrated costume design by Edie Kurzer for Simonides in ‘Pericles’, with working notes by the artist.

 

Costume design by Edie Kurzer for Simonides in ‘Pericles’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1994
Gift of Edie Kurzer, 2021
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The costume tunic worn by John Walton as Simonides in ‘Pericles’, mounted on a headless white mannequin; and two different zoomed-in details of the costume.

 

Tunic worn by John Walton as Simonides in ‘Pericles’, Bell Shakespeare Company, 1995
Designed by Edie Kurzer
Gift of Bell Shakespeare, 2001
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

These are just some examples of the unique costumes in the Australian Performing Arts Collection that reflect Bell Shakespeare’s spirit and history. Studio photography and other digitisation is important in documenting collection items and making them accessible online. As the company continues to bring Shakespeare’s stories to audiences around Australia, we are pleased to play our part in building on and sharing this significant collection.

 

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