For the apparel oft proclaims the man

Alex Stewart is telling the history of Bell Shakespeare through costume.

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26.05.2021

“Everyone seems to have a story as to how they became involved with Bell Shakespeare, and I’ve come to discover that every costume has a story as well.”

Alex Stewart is telling the history of Bell Shakespeare through costume.

Alex is in the second year of her Master of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. She recently completed a 20-day internship at Bell Shakespeare in partnership with the University of Sydney, where she worked to catalogue, and research the significance of Bell Shakespeare’s costume collection.

We interviewed Alex about her time trawling through the costume archive and are delighted to share her findings with you.

1. Tell us a bit about your approach to the project?

Costumes are highly anecdotal and provide such direct links to the past. I feel very fortunate to have come to know the story of Bell Shakespeare through its own collection. I like to think of costumes as the DNA of the company.

The aim of this internship was to determine the significance of the Bell Shakespeare costume collection. This involved assessing the entire costume archive (which contains well over 1,000 items) and curating a sub-collection of 50 pieces, which traces the now 30-year production history and evolution of its artistic vision.

It was a rare opportunity to research and catalogue such an extensive collection of largely undocumented items. A treasure trove of histories came to the surface, of famous faces, outstanding productions, artistic flashpoints… quite extraordinary!

2. Has there been a particular designer’s work that stands out to you?

There are many so spectacular designers in the Bell collection, but it is hard to look past Anna Cordingley. Her designs have this lavish, opulent quality and are incredibly striking for their sheer technical brilliance. Audiences will remember her work from noteworthy productions such as Romeo and Juliet (2016), Tartuffe (2014) and Macbeth (2012).

Cordingley’s designs offer a counterpoint to the minimalist approach advocated in John Bell’s original artistic vision. Directed by Peter Evans in 2016, Romeo and Juliet seemed radical in opting for period design but it could not have been more contemporary. It was peak Game of Thrones mania and the Elizabethan dress spoke to the zeitgeist.

Yellow bodice and skirt set; Anna Cordingley; 2016.

There is a sense that the careers of many artists are hatched with Bell Shakespeare and this feels true with Anna Cordingley. A critically acclaimed designer, she has gone on to work with big names in the industry, including Opera Australia, Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse, Belvoir St Theatre, and has won two Green Room Awards for Best Design and a Helpmann Award for Best Set Design for Jasper Jones.

3. Is there a costume that you feel captures a significant cultural moment?

The firefighter’s jacket worn by Andrea Demetriades as Viola in the 2010 production of Twelfth Night is remarkable. This was the year after the Black Saturday bushfires, and the production referenced this significant event with such power and sensitivity, testament to the risk-taking, groundbreaking direction of Lee Lewis (now Artistic Director at Queensland Theatre Company).

A repurposed firefighter’s jacket marked with black ashy brushstrokes, it is an example of highly original design by Anna Tregloan. The production struck a chord with audiences, particularly in regional areas, and was nominated for seven Green Room Awards. A costume like this is representative of John Bell’s grand ambition of thirty years ago, to make Shakespeare meaningful and accessible to all Australians.

Firefighters jacket; Anna Tregloan; 2010.

4. What is the most significant piece from an early Bell Shakespeare production in the collection?

Identifying costumes from the first few seasons was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. These early costumes were unlabeled and the productions themselves were often sparsely documented.

In my research I came across some archival footage from 1992. The footage is grainy, shot on a handheld camera and seems to be of backstage and early rehearsal takes. But there were aha moments! I was able to identify and liberate rare costumes from the first two seasons. These included a smart emerald jacket worn by Anna Volska and a magnificent cloak worn by Christopher Stollery, both from the 1992 production of Richard III designed by Sue Field.

Emerald jacket; Sue Field; 1992.
Black cloak; Sue Field; 1992

5. If there was a fire and you could only salvage one item from the collection which would it be?

You can’t tell the other costumes – but I have a favourite!

A mesmerising tulle skirt by designer Gabriela Tylesova, that stood out to me from the start of the project. It’s a unique construction of layered red and black tulle embellished with safety pins and light-up toys (frogs, stars, whistles). The punk style is reminiscent of the designs of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

Red tulle skirt; Gabriela Tylesova; 2006

It all made sense when I uncovered its origin: the 2006 production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Anna Volska. Not only because of its connection to Anna, who is a founding member of the company, but as an example of the early design work of Tylesova, now a rising star in theatre design. Since Bell Shakespeare, she has worked for Opera Australia, Sydney Theatre Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, and in the tour de force that was Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Love Never Dies in 2011. The costume reflects her spellbinding, whimsical fairytale quality that continues to captivate audiences.

6. What did you learn about Bell Shakespeare through this experience?

I learned that there is a lot of untold history at Bell Shakespeare. Its roots run deep within the local theatre community and wider performing arts narrative. Everyone seems to have a story as to how they became involved with Bell Shakespeare, and through this project I’ve come to discover that every costume has a story as well.

The project has allowed these voices to emerge from the backlog of history, the things we say in conversation that aren’t always noted down. To salvage these stories from memory, and liberate the costumes that tell these stories, has been extremely thrilling and rewarding.

Shakespeare is remarkable for its timeless truth. It speaks to the human condition 400 years on. By the same token, costume is extremely referential and continually adapted, which makes it such a fascinating vehicle for performing Shakespeare. Bell Shakespeare continues to bring these works in conversation with contemporary Australian audiences and wears its visionary history in costumes.

For a further look into the collection, Alex Stewart’s full costume catalogue can be viewed here.

This internship was conducted through Bell Shakespeare’s partnership with the University of Sydney.