Why do you always wear black?’ Masha is asked in Chekhov’s jewel of a play, The Seagull. She responds with the frequently quoted line ‘I’m
in mourning for my life’. These opening lines prove to me that Chekhov clearly understood the importance of costume in terms of defining character. Just as the clothes of the people you pass every day on the street can tell you about anything from their income to how much they take care of themselves right up to what they want you to think of them, costume tells you a myriad of things about a character on stage. The costume designer’s role is not simply to pick out pretty clothes that work well with the set and fit a balanced colour palette. They must get into the mindset of each of those characters, and must be able to demonstrate to the audience aspects of that character that the character himself might not even be consciously aware of.
The theme of decay is of key importance to this play, and this
need not just be shown through language or physicality. The character of Sorin diminishes physically and in terms of status as the play progresses. An apparently shrunken man in an overlarge suit says more than simply that the costume designer can’t measure suits properly. Just as a play tells the story of complete lives in only a few hours, sometimes only one costume must be able to tell the story of a character.
Costumes help to unravel the visual story in other ways. They say
that you will never truly understand a person until you walk a mile in
their shoes. The same is true of acting. So when an actor makes the
slightly unexpected request for his character’s shoes to be ‘well-
worn’ and to have them for rehearsal as soon as possible, I am all too happy to comply. From spats to hats, boleros to cummerbunds, costumes alter the way an actor views his character. The fashions of the turn-of-the-century era especially can be hard to wear – an abundance of petticoats make clothes much heavier and more difficult to manage than modern clothing. They change the way actors move and stand, and it is often not until the costume fitting that an actor can fully visualise his character.
This is a play that has been performed so many times that it is
difficult to strike the balance between staying true to its core and
bringing our own inspirations and influences to it. The style of the
language to me is very much rooted in a specific time but the emotions and human interactions are as relevant to a modern audience as they were when Chekhov wrote the play. It is no surprise to me that it has been called an immortal piece of theatre, and yet it is the set and costumes that really place it in one era. It is important that these complement the language and acting without distracting. Like an excellent piece of film music that plays your heart strings without you even being aware, sometimes the most effective design is one which does not draw attention to itself. Sometimes, however, a costume must make a statement as loud as an actor’s passionate outburst.
Choosing costumes for this particular play has been quite an
experience. So far, I have been faced with the challenge of designing
a costume that must be timeless and ethereal for a symbolist play- within-a-play, and have been regaled with stories of surgery by one
particular wardrobe mistress: ‘black as a pot but a fabulous surgeon’.
All in a day’s work.