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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Elizabeth Whiting Designs the Costumes, New Zealand Herald 23 April 2001


A rags to riches job

23.04.2001 Costume designer Elizabeth Whiting's art is to balance creativity with careful attention to the script.

MICHELE HEWITSON watches as actors are transformed.

It's standing room only inside Elizabeth Whiting's head.  The Auckland costume designer, herself elegant in a quiet sort of way, has parades of players decked out in kaleidoscope colours tumbling, gesticulating, laughing, dying and singing their way through her endlessly inventive mind.

Which is no doubt useful for the designer who has spent the past few months working on The Blue Room, Manon and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and whose CV ranges from The God Boy to Aida, Letter to Blanchy to La Boheme. The costume designer is, after all, the ultimate recycler.

In her studio in Wellesley St, four of the cast of the Auckland Theatre Company's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are being coaxed into various states of theatrical glamour - with the exception of Michael Hurst (the Player) who is revelling in the fact that he looks as though he has not recently had any significant relationship with soap and water.

It is, Whiting says, a fairly chaotic scene.  There are costumes on racks and piles of costumes on the floor.  Masks are laid out for drying; sewing machines whirl.  This is Whiting's world and it looks, frankly, like a secondhand shop which specialises in pre-loved rags.

Out of such chaos, by some sleight of costumier's hand, Geraldine Brophy emerges looking pristine, beautifully made up and lasciviously regal.  That's Whiting's job: to create order out of chaos.  And - the paradox of the stage designer - to make sure that the costumes are, where called for, suitably sumptuous but not so splendid that when a director opens the newspaper the morning after opening night the first line of the review reads: "The costumes were fabulous."

Whiting says she has "never been particularly worried about the costumes being mentioned in a review.  I often feel that if they are, the piece isn't working.  The best feedback would not be people coming up and saying 'wow' about the costumes but if they are describing the character by referring to pieces of costume."

Nevertheless, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the costumes are fabulous.  When the production opens on Wednesday at the Maidment Theatre, that will be Whiting's cue to take a (modest) bow for a process which began for her last December.

These players have been inside her head for a long time.  She'd seen the play performed once before and remembered it as being dense and funny.  She read the script, took out the film of the play on video and found - "I was quietly shocked" - that the director Tom Stoppard's take on his own play was "slow and very unfunny.  I feel he was completely swamped by the film medium.  He was trying to film a play within a play within a movie."  It sent her back to the script.

As she's reading, she says, she starts seeing images of how the characters might look.  Those ideas are fed from the hundreds of images that she's surrounded by.


For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the work of fashion designer Galliano was an influence.  Or try Versace meets Duran Duran. Oliver Driver (Guildenstern) and Craig Parker (Rosencrantz) wear shirts held together with clips reminiscent of that Liz Hurley frock.  They are also, says Whiting, used to evoke an Elizabethan element.  She wanted the leads to belong to no particular period "but to have a period flavour" about them.  They are fashionable, wealthy young men at university with Hamlet, enjoying their youth.

"I imagined them walking along and shopping together: 'You buy that one and I'll buy this one'."

Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, bit players, of course, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, are Stoppard's uncertain stars.  Summoned to the Court of Elsinore for reasons they are not privy to, they pass the time placing bets on the toss of a coin.  Whiting saw the pair as "from another world or universe.  The reason they're bewildered all the way through is because they don't belong in any of the places they're in."

An audience, Whiting believes, comes to the play as she did: knowing Hamlet but unaware of the machinations and undercurrents of the Court.  Her costumes work as a kind of code to help the audience to find a way through Stoppard's dense script.  Hence Alfred (Willie Plumb), who harbours a puppy-love admiration for Hurst's Player, subtly mimics the Player's style of dressing.  The members of the court are black and white - you can trace their movements through the script like players on a chess board.

Although Whiting may have made her drawings months before, a designer, she says, can't get too attached to a sketch.  Actors have opinions and, as she notes, "an actor who doesn't like a costume can make it look really terrible."

Hurst's costume is the one which has changed the most in the process of evolution from sketch to stage.  On the day of the read-through, when Whiting presented her ideas to the cast, Hurst said "Oh, no.  That's not how I see myself."

Whiting's original design combined the idea of the Player as a very real actor with flamboyant touches.  Hurst saw the character as looking grittier than that implied.  They had, though, both started out from the same image - that of a modern-day player turning up at a theatre wearing the old, comfortable gear so beloved of actors.

To accommodate that image, the player's costumes have a theatrical history.  Whiting has delved, magpie-like, into the old Theatre Corporate wardrobe, now stored at Unitec, and into her own grab-bag of leftovers from past productions.  Actors like old clothes, she says.  "Very often when you see actors in a dressing room, they have an old dressing gown and it's like a talisman."  She and Hurst turned up on the same day with a pair of scuffed old cowboy boots for his character.  That was a good moment.

The worst moments for the costume designer can come once their charges, those costumes, are let loose on a stage, far from their tweaking hands.  Whiting's very worst moment was on an opening night when a young actor took the stage wearing a skirt inside out.  She can remember that episode well enough to still cringe when she talks about it.  What she can't remember is the name of the play.  Small wonder.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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