Show thrusts top stage designers into spotlight

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The Independent Online

They are the unsung heroes of theatreland – the men and women who create the lavish costumes, scenery, lighting and stage sets for some of the biggest playhouses in the country. But now, designers who have helped conceptualise and construct some of the most spectacular productions in Britain's theatres including West End hits such as Evita, plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and operas including Wagner's The Ring Cycle, are finally being thrust into the spotlight.

An exhibition, Collaborators: UK Design For Performance 2003-2007, opening today at the Victoria and Albert Museum, looks at the best in stage design, encompassing large scale pantomimes, operas, dances and stage dramas as well as experimental "site specific" performances in which a disused street in Liverpool, a pond in Co Cork and a stately home in North Yorkshire were all transformed into stage venues.

Examples are given of how the stage sets enhance the performance. In a staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Yorkshire Playhouse, the set designer created a tilting floor for the scene when Ferdinand and the courtiers land on an island following a shipwreck, to reflect their sense of disorientation.

Es Devlin, who designed the set and costumes for Philip Glass's chamber opera Orphée, based on the Orpheus myth, revealed how she envisioned the special creation of a chamber below the stage, so that the protagonist could continue his journey underground. "I conceived an additional lift to continue the protagonist's journey into the underworld and the Royal Opera House approved," she said.

Paul Brown, the costume designer for Mozart's Lucio Silla, said he wanted the garments to appear oversized to convey a sense of "repressed emotions and unnaturally artificial behaviour" that emerges in the three-act Italian opera. Stefanos Lazaridis, set designer of The Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House, admitted he was not acquainted with Wagner's epic and had to learn the opera first, before designing the set.

Rick Fisher, who created the intense lighting for Billy Elliot, the theatrical adaptation of Stephen Daldry's film about a miner's son aspiring to become a ballet dancer, said: "At times when the stage becomes empty, the light helps to define an emotional landscape as Billy struggles against the prejudice of the community to express himself through powerful dance."

Kate Burnett, curator of the exhibition, said: "It is wonderful to see the costumes, staging and sets of performances which are otherwise lost or thrown on backstage floors because they are transitory."