Desmond Heeley, who designed sets and costumes for the theatre, opera and ballet, and was known for his ability to create visual magic out of humble materials, died June 10 in Manhattan. The cause was cancer. He was 85.
Mr. Heeley made his Broadway debut in 1959, producing the costumes and sets for a production of Twelfth Night, and registered his final Broadway credit more than five decades later, with the 2011 revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Brian Bedford. His work on the latter won him both a Tony and Drama Desk Award.
He won two Tony Awards—one for costume design and one for scenic design—for his work on the original Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s existential farce Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Other Broadway credits include the musical Cyrano, Teibele and Her Demon, the 1980 and 1981 revivals of the musical Camelot, and the 1989 revival of The Circle, which starred Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger in their stage swan songs.
Desmond Heeley created sets and costumes for many of the great theatre and opera troupes of the world, including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Royal National Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theater, Vienna State Opera, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and La Scala in Milan.
He also taught design as a professor at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, as well as other universities in the United States, England and Canada. In 1994 he was the first recipient of the prestigious Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award.
He was born June 1, 1931, in Staffordshire, England. He had his first opportunity to work in theatre design as an apprentice for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s production of King Lear.
“The reason why I fell into the theatre,” he told Playbill.com in 2011, was “because it is the air of make-believe and what used to be called the magic world behind the scenes. I should add that I'm a World War II child, so we had to make do with anything that you had around to make things happen…homely fabrics…masking tape…the ever-loving wire coat hangers. They're cheap, lying around, and you can quickly put them into shape, you can quickly sculpt them. People sometimes see what I do and think, 'Oh, God. Sloshy, sloshy.' It's not. It's very carefully worked out. That's the illusion of it being impressionistic, the illusion of it being a poem.”
His career got a boost when he was enlisted by director Peter Brook to work on his productions of Anouilh’s The Lark and Titus Andronicus starring Sir Laurence Olivier in 1955. In 1957, he was hired to design Hamlet at the new Festival Theatre for the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This began a long association with the company.
Other stage work included the original productions of Joe Orton’s Loot and Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue, starring Ralph Richardson.
His work was known not for its verisimilitude, but for its theatrical, painterly qualities. “It's a wonderful chance to make artifice happen, as opposed to just downright realism,” he said in an interview with Playbill.com in 2011, about The Importance of Being Earnest. “It's an attempt to create an atmosphere. In the doing of that, especially in this play, it's appropriate for what it is, being a theatrical device, because they're not real people, really. Also, it's much more fun for an audience, too. I think that the minute you walk in the theater, especially with this play, that you should have a sense of expectation — [with the] the footlights and the nod towards 19th-century theater with the show curtain — that you're in a theater watching a theatrical performance.”
He preferred audiences not to closely inspect his work, but to remain in their seats, where they’re “meant to” sit.
“Distance lends enchantment,” he said. “It's like a magician, you know. ‘I've got nothing up my sleeve; watch this.’”