ONLY A couple of weeks remain until the curtain rises on the epic DruidMurphy cycle and the company is in the thick of technical rehearsals at the Town Hall, preparing for what is sure to be a highlight of the theatrical year.
While much attention may focus on the input of playwright, director and actors, the contribution of the design team should not be underestimated. A key member of the DruidMurphy design team is costume designer Joan O’Clery, twice winner of Costume Designer of the Year in The Irish Times Theatre Awards.
During a break in rehearsals she sat down to talk about her work and how she is approaching the trio of plays that make up DruidMurphy.
“I’ve been working in costume for over 20 years now,” she begins. “I trained in men’s handcraft tailoring. After my training I went to work as a costume assistant at the Abbey and worked with designers like Monica Frawley, Joe Vanek, and Nigel Boyd. I was on the staff there as wardrobe assistant when Garry was artistic director and she gave me my first design break, which was for Bernard Farrell’s The Last Apache Reunion in 1993.
“I’ve been doing costume design since then, mainly in theatre. I worked a long time at the Abbey, I was head of wardrobe there for five years, I was on the staff before that though. Then I decided to go freelance four years ago...and here I am!”
Joan describes the steps in the design process.
“Generally I sit down with the director and we pass ideas back and forth,” she says. “Obviously, the script is the starting point and then how the director wants to bring their vision to it and then working with the set designer as well; Francis O’Connor is doing the set on this and the three of us have had chats on how we see it going. And I’d be researching the relevant periods of the plays as well.”
As chance would have it Joan has considerable prior experience of working on Tom Murphy’s plays, having been costume designer for the Abbey’s five-play festival of his work in 2002. Did that experience have any bearing on her approach to DruidMurphy?
“Once you’ve worked on a play you know it really thoroughly,” she says. “I did Whistle in the Dark before but I was new coming to Conversations and Famine; even though I’d seen productions I hadn’t actually designed productions of them before. Tom Murphy’s world is familiar to me because I’ve worked on quite a lot of his stuff; I recently did Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant. I’m a huge fan, I love his work and it’s so exciting to work on his plays, it’s very rewarding.”
An interesting aspect of the three DruidMurphy plays - Famine, A Whistle In The Dark, and Conversations On A Homecoming - is that director Garry Hynes is keen on having visual motifs with the plays which will provide a ‘payoff’ for anyone who goes to see all three.
“There are subtle visual links in the costumes,” explains Joan. “For each play they will stand alone but there are also links, there are certain echoes of characters; for example Anne in Conversations and Maeve in Famine – who are played by the same actress - in some ways the characters represent ‘hope’ so Garry was keen to have a visual link, she’s also the opening image of the series of plays and the closing image as well so we look for something that will link that visually as well as what’s there in the script.
“What tends to happen when you’re working on a series of plays like this is that they’re linked by the style of writing so it’s like doing one big enormous Tom Murphy play!”
The three plays cover different periods of time so when designing consumes how historically accurate does Joan need to be and what kind of liberties can she take?
“You take liberties in order to express aspects of character externally because the plays are so much about the inner person,” she says. “Conversations is set in 1974 and we want you to know it’s set then but we don’t want to be flashing the period so to speak and have it in your face.
“It’s more about the character than the fashion of the time. In Whistle in the Dark it’s in the script that the boys like their clothes, they want to look sharp. It’s as if they think they’re the Kray brothers so it’s been nice to do that, but without being too extreme in terms of costume.
“There’s a lot of research available on that period, photographs and a lot of verité you can find in the costumes. Similarly with Conversations you can get that sense of reality about it.
“There are very few photographs of the famine era so it was interesting researching that; there are a lot of etchings and drawings that were done after the Famine but there isn’t a huge amount. There are some newspaper drawings of events that took place but in terms of costume research it’s not very accurate so it was interesting to discover that.
“With Famine we’ve kind of neutralised the period for the look of the villagers. The villagers are in contemporary costume with echoes of the characters they’ve been in the other plays then the Relief Committee and authority characters are in high period Victorian costume. It’s a way of bringing home the idea that famines have not gone away, it’s still something people have to deal with in various parts of the world.
“It’s lovely working in period costume but modern or 20th century dress has its own challenges which aren’t necessarily obvious to the viewer. It’s as if you can create a situation where people go ‘what costumes?’ That’s a really good thing because they’ve forgotten that it’s costumed it looks authentic.”
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