Designing Costumes for Ashurbanipal: Interview

By Finola Austin

OFS’s Finola Austin talks to director Thomas Stell about costuming his latest production Ashurbanipal (4th week at the Simpkins Lee Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall):

F: Tell us a little about the play?

T: Ashurbanipal is a play written by Oxford student Selena Wisnom, which I came across it a little over a year ago. It’s about the downfall of Ashurbanipal, the King of Assyria. It’s a decline and fall story, a bit Tamburlaine-esque. We started work on it a few months ago but once we’d decided to have a heavy metal soundtrack, it really started coming together. 

F: What was your overall concept for the costumes?

T: I always like the actor to look statuesque and inhuman. I’m fascinated by oriental theatre - Noh plays and also the Balinese dance. I like the fact that the actor or dancer presents a god or a demon – something that’s not human – and so even when my actors are playing a person I like them to have that inhuman quality. 

F: And how does costume help achieve this?

T: We use lots of heavy white make-up. In my last play The Lesson [2nd week at the Burton Taylor studio] the make-up was just mask-like but this time I’m going to try to cover all the skin – the face and the neck. The costumes have long sleeves and the actors will be wearing white gloves. I like the way it makes the actors glow under the blue lighting in The Lesson and parts of Ashurbanipal will be lit in the same way. I’m very influenced by Robert Wilson’s work and his actors almost look like petrified ghosts – they have a sort of deathlike beauty.

F: That must be strange for the actor. Do you rehearse in costume?

T: Ideally we would throughout the process. When you rehearse without the costume it feels very strange as everything the actor does is subordinated to the costume and to the mask. In Noh drama the sleeves are so huge they restrict movement and it’s odd to rehearse without knowing why you have to hold your arms like that. My costumes don’t constrain the actor physically as much but it’s the same idea.

F: Is it important for you to combine the director/designer role?

T: When I picture how a production will work the design comes to me at the same time. I’m not really a director in the traditional sense – I direct the movement and the design but I’m not trying to stimulate actors to find their own movements. In some ways the design becomes clear before anything else.

F: And are you involved in every detail of the costuming?

T: I kind of look over the shoulders of my production team for the details. We find simple pieces from the High Street and then adapt them - white long sleeve t-shirts, black trousers, white trousers. We make them part of the production. Some of the t-shirts will be decorated with ink, some with Cuneiform in black paint. And some will have paint roughly slashed over them which has an interesting effect under the lights. In The Lesson the professor wears a black suit which we slashed black paint over. It looks very strange - under the blue light it looks quite wet and shiny but dusty at the same time. The adaptations aren’t random but I think in Ashurbanipal there should be a certain roughness, a certain sketchiness.

F: This is all very minimalist. Do you see yourself wanting to experiment with more elaborate costuming?

T: There are some points of colour in Ashurbanipal but I would like to do some more extravagant stuff. I feel a very strong imaginative affinity to the more Gothicised painters of the 15th century. I love Botticelli. Say, the way he paints armour for one of the Virtues in the Uffizi – Fortitude, I think. I love the extravagance of that or the cloth in Uccello. I think it’s connected to my fondness for the line. All my work is, in a sense, linear. I mean there is delicacy in Ashurbanipal but that more delicate line comes from the movement rather than the costumes.

F: Have you any formal training in visual arts?

T: I’ve taught myself by spending time in the National Gallery and the Ashmolean when I should have been doing other things. I’m not a great draughtsman but I’m obviously    fascinated by the visual arts. I often refer my actors to painters.

F: Tell me about a production where you felt the costuming was all wrong?

T: I saw the Medea at the English National Opera. It was all very glossy – they even had a shiny floor. They’d given it a sort of First World War feel so you had military people - Corinthians, Athenians etc. dressed like the navy and the army. I didn’t like it because chic is very easy to look at. I think when an artist tries to make something beautiful they should make it beautiful in a surprising sort of way, maybe even a grotesque way. I think that’s true in catwalk fashion as well. 

All images from The Lesson by Angelika Benz.
Ashurbanipal poster designed by Valentine Kozin.

You can follow Finola on Twitter @alonif01

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