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15 Jan 2011

Desmond Heeley
Desmond Heeley
Photo by Krissie Fullerton

Desmond Heeley, the 1968 Tony Award winner for designing sets and costumes for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is back on Broadway, Earnest-ly displaying his penchant for painterly work.


When the footlight-kissed, hand-painted show curtain rises on the London drawing room of Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience inevitably applauds. But not necessarily because scenic (and costume) designer Desmond Heeley, 79, has created an ultra-realistic set. It's the painterly, impressionistic, un-literal quality that grabs you (in all three acts). Where another designer might try to create a smooth porcelain vase on a set, Heeley's vase is a slightly uneven one — its artifice is part of its charm in this play about surface. His Act Two garden is punctuated with frosted greenery and artificial flowers. In the distance, on canvas, is a stately home of England. It's not seeking to be photorealism; it wants to be theatrical. (This production first surfaced at Canada's Stratford Festival, and there were only slight scenic changes between then and now; the footlights are new, for example.)

British-born Heeley — whose work has been seen in the worlds of opera, dance and theatre for more than 50 years, La Scala to the Royal National Theatre — spoke to about his processes and passions.

There's this beautiful handmade quality to what you've done in the scenic design of Earnest. Is this very much a Desmond Heeley kind of aesthetic?
Desmond Heeley: Well, it is, actually. I've been accused of being hands-on, hands-on, hands-on, but I grew up in a workroom, and I loved the actual — physical — thing of doing it.

I love the impressionistic quality. There is a painterly quality to it.
DH: Oh, thank you. That's the compliment I was looking for. It's a wonderful chance to make artifice happen, as opposed to just downright realism. 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 theatre, especially with this play, that you should have a sense of expectation — [with the] the footlights and the nod towards 19th-century theatre with the show curtain — that you're in a theatre watching a theatrical performance. The show curtain was great fun to paint. That was my last bit of scene-painting on my own [that] I did before my legs started bothering me. [Laughs.]

Literally, you are that hands-on? You are up there painting?
DH: I painted the drop myself, the front cloth, yeah.

I love the hint of gold leaf that you toss in there on the show curtain.
DH: The "gold leaf" is Christmas paper, by the way. It's cheaper and more effective. [Laughs.]

When the light hits it, it almost has a quality of lights embedded in the curtain. Is that Queen Victoria herself on the curtain?
DH: No, that's Britannia. Yes, indeed, with her trident…

And you painted the letters "V.R.," correct?
DH: Yes, Victoria Regina.


Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell
photo by Joan Marcus

Was it part of director Brian Bedford's discussion with you from the beginning that there would be footlights and it would be a theatrical world of the 1890s?
DH: Yes, it was a theatrical world with a capital "T." And also, it's a pleasurable one. It's a joyful one, and it's fun. I think it's the reason why I fell into the theatre, 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. But the one thing I'm always chasing, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is air on stage, so that the spaces are as important as the solid bits, you know?

Like the tension between the more defined downstage set and the upstage mansion in the distance?
DH: Yes, indeed. The further away you get, the more misty things get. It's like taking a photograph, when you focus on the performers. So what's above them is slightly out-of-focus, and what's downstage is more muddled, you know? It's like bas-relief, traditional bas-relief. It's a nod towards the more popular arts.

And are there wire hangers on this set?
DH: By the mile, yeah. [Laughs.] They're disguised, they're disguised. It's a good structure. You join two or three of those together and you've got a strong place to work on, and it's also fast, it's cheap, and you can do all sorts of things with it. The chandelier in Act Three is made of plastic wine glasses and plastic plates and plastic flutes and plastic spoons, but the wire — the dry-cleaning wires — are the best [Laughs] because they're the strongest. I know I sound like I'm joking, but you can get an effect of delicacy, and you also have strength.

Up close, it wouldn't look like a chandelier, but from down front or from the balcony, it does. That's the joy of the eye, I guess.
DH: Well, you see, I'm not awfully keen on the audience coming to see how it's made. I like them to sit where they're meant to. [Laughs.]

No backstage tours.
DH: No, distance lends enchantment. It's like a magician, you know. "I've got nothing up my sleeve; watch this."

Was there any pressure to "bump up" the visuals for Broadway since the 2009 Stratford production? Was this stuff put in storage after Stratford and shipped down?
DH: No, no, no, a great deal of it [is new]. Brian's clothes are from Stratford, but the rest of it has been manufactured [in New York]. Some of the trellises were from Stratford, but the whole thing has been built here. [The American Airlines is] a slightly larger theatre [than Stratford's Avon Theatre], too.


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