That big surprise moment when you see it on the stage and you’re like ‘Oh my God – that’s what it’s about. That’s why I made all those decisions.’ I love working on things that will grab people’s attention.
IN THE SECOND half of Wayne Jordan’s new production of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, Malvolio – played with the energy of a tightly-coiled spring by Mark O’Halloran – dons a costume that has probably never been seen on the Abbey stage before.
No spoilers, of course, but O’Halloran’s eye-catching apparel is just one way that Jordan’s take on the Bard turns tradition on its head. And then some.
Twelfth Night is about disguise, desire and (sometimes) disgust, and Jordan has taken these elements and used them to explore sexuality, gender, and same-sex relationships.
Shunning period costumes and opting for a contemporary look, on a stripped-down set, and soundtracked by Irish composer Tom Lane, this is Shakespeare, Jim, but not as we know it.
The woman behind the costumes is Emma Fraser, who in turn had the entire Abbey costume department team working with her.
Owner of the store 9 Crow St (there are some of its pieces in the show), she had previously worked with Jordan on his Fringe show Elevator.
“Wayne comes with a big visual idea straight away, so it’s about taking that on board and building on it,” she recalled. They began meeting last November, going through all the characters and developing personalities for each of them.
“I like to wait until we go into the room and see how the actors are and how the actor develops the character,” outlined Fraser. “In this show, I think the actors developed different character traits than you’d expect from the play.”
She decided not to look at the other productions of Twelfth Night before beginning her work.
I really wanted it to be a fresh look at it, that’s about today and them and the world that the play is in. It was kind of trying to locate them in their own world, so they could exist today and they could have existed in the past.
She was heavily influenced by today’s take on fashion, particularly the mixing of eras, which can be seen in Valentine’s (played by Elaine Fox) multi-coloured 80s garb and Olivia’s (played by Natalie Radmall-Quirke) classy mid-century tailored dresses.
Fraser first got into costume work in 2009, thanks to her friends at TheatreClub. “I keep saying yes to things, and it’s brought me here,” said Fraser, gesturing at the lush surroundings of the Abbey’s bar area.
I have no official training – it’s really validating to be represented on this stage, it shows that I just learned on my feet.
Having the support of the Abbey staff was essential to Fraser:
“You’re allowed to focus on the design, the art of it in here, all the practicalities of it are done here for you. You can really be in the theatre, be near your work, which is a great freedom to have.”
About 80 per cent of the costumes were bought, and the rest were made in the Abbey. Here’s the Head of the Costume Department at the Abbey, Niamh Lunny, to explain what they do behind the scenes:
On the stage
No matter how much work you’ve done, you simply don’t know if it will all click until almost the last minute.
“You don’t really see whether it’s worked or not until you get on the stage,” said Fraser. During the technical work just before the show opens, things were tweaked.
“The set is so light, the colour of it, I had to make sure the costumes popped in there, so I definitely swapped a few things between tech and the previews.”
For inspiration, Fraser looked at Medieval paintings, taking the deep colours – like wines and greens – as a jumping off point.
There is a touch of Medieval times about the costumes, from Duke Orsino’s (Barry John O’Connor) voluminous gold cape to a ruff worn by Maria (Ruth McGill).
A huge, clanking suit of armour even makes an appearance, adding a touch of slapstick to the hilarious Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert).
The plot centres on a pair of twins, Viola (Sophie Robinson) and Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) who are shipwrecked. Viola presumes her brother is dead, and disguises herself as a boy named Cesario in order to work for Orsino.
Viola and Sebastian are presented wearing androgynous, nautical-inspired clothes.
“I didn’t really want to dress Sophie as a boy, I wanted to bring them to a middle ground,” explained Fraser.
“Not many directors would understand design like Wayne does. He allows you room to create and change things.”
What are the challenges with this sort of work? “I think keeping it simple is the most difficult part. I had a lot more detail in it originally. But then you have to pull back to keep the simplicity of it,” said Fraser,
If you thought the clothing would be difficult to work with, it’s what lies beneath that can be the trickiest element.
“The underwear is the most complicated thing to do, even though you think that’s the most straightforward thing,” laughed Fraser. For one particular scene, the cast had to wear “about three pairs of underwear” but look like they had just one pair on.
Fitting, given that Twelfth Night is all about layers of disguise.
Fraser also found the simple veils worn by Olivia and Maria to be tricky:
I thought they were going to be really easy, just throw a piece of fabric over someone’s head. Actually it has to be a whole thought process – it’s actually the simplest things that can be the most complicated.
Matching characters with costumes
Olivia: “I wanted to keep that very dark and in mourning for the start. Olivia’s world being sharp and tailored in that way was important to me. I had a strong idea of what Olivia’s household looked like.”
Feste [Ger Kelly]: “I wanted to not make a joke of him. Ger’s his own type of Feste so to give him real presence on the stage but keep him slightly different from everyone else. We talked a lot about gender bending and cross-dressing. It’s referenced from that, but also it’s keeping him very masculine and not dressing him as a woman, but playing on the idea of him being different than everyone else.”
Antonio (left): “Conor plays a pirate in it, so I wanted to do in a small way; in a way that fitted into the play. So I thought about putting the eyepatch in, and thought ‘let’s make it gold’. He’s not dressed as a pirate.”
Sebastian (right): “It was bringing Gavin closer to Viola, rather than bring her the whole way to Gavin.”
Malvolio: “We talked a lot about how to represent class in a modern way. The character of Malvolio, how particular he is. Who Mark is, and how he played the character all come into play. The shape of Mark and everything allowed me to do that with him. He loves his glasses!”
Duke Orsino (right): “He’s playful, more playful, [living in] more of a dress up land”. On his gentlewoman Valentine (Elaine): “It feels kind of like Orsino would have made her dress like that… He would give her things to wear”.
Viola: “I didn’t want to play on the big cross-dressing thing of making her really masculine or wearing a moustache. I wanted young and fresh.”
“It was about the small detail for me,” said Fraser, explaining how the gold curtains of the opening act are reflected in the use of a gold bag and gold trousers.
I think I had a very strong idea of what each character was going to look like and feel like. It’s about refining it, and refining it, and refining it the whole way along.
To complete the look, most of the male cast got sharper haircuts, while Fullam (Sebastian) had his dark hair dyed blonde to match his on-stage sister’s.
Fraser, who draws inspiration from legends like Joan Bergin but also her peers in Thisispopbaby and Theatreclub, has this advice for those who want a career in costume: Approach people. “Start doing the work, rather than thinking about it.”
In the future, she’d like to try period work, to “see if I could put a new twist on it”. Next up is another project with Jordan, Pains of Youth.
Taking on the challenge of bringing Twelfth Night to the Abbey stage, and making it fresh and relevant, is not a small one. So it’s handy that the play has the subtitle ‘what you will’.
“We initially thought this is a Marmite show,” said Fraser. “People are going to love it or hate it. I think at the end of the day you have to own what you’ve done and say this is the show we want to stand behind and the show we want to make.”
Twelfth Night runs until 25 May. More details and tickets here.