presentation of the Ulysses Medal on Bob Crowley

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

Text of the inroductory address delivered by Dr Cathy Leeney on 15 June 2013, on the occasion of the presentation of the Ulysses Medal on Bob Crowley

For the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the stage of the Music Box Theater has been remodelled into a sex-drenched boudoir of late Eighteenth-century France. Signs of reckless carnal abandon are everywhere. Huge linen sheets, rumpled from hectic use, drape the proscenium and boxes. Lacy silk underthings tumble in messy profusion from the hastily slammed drawers of a towering chiffonier. Tall slatted screens, the better for servants to peep through, cast distorted shadows. All that’s missing is a proper regal bed. Instead, there’s a constellation of settees and chaise longues; this is an arena for men and women who copulate on the run. The setting, at once in period and nightmarishly abstracted in Bob Crowley’s inspired design, does not belie the action.’ Thus wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times, the notorious critic giving a vivid sense of the stunning design achievement of Bob Crowley, Costume designer and Scenographer for theatre, opera and film, director, and native of Cork. Les Liaisons Dangereuses was hugely successful in Stratford, London and New York and and won Crowley a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design in 1987. Bob Crowley’s complete list of nominations and awards is far too long however to rehearse now; suffice it to say that the Oliviers are many, the Tonys are multiple, the Drama Desk and London Critics Circle repeated and he was the recipient the Royal Design for Industry award. In addition he has twice been part of the British team entry for the Prague Quadrennial International Exhibition of Theatre Design and Architecture, the theatre design equivalent of the Venice Biennale.

Bob Crowley creates worlds. The stage is his space of infinite possibility. Each time he begins the process of creating a design for a production, settings and/or costumes, when he first encounters a new script or hears music from a new score, he faces the empty white page with a ‘rush of delight’ as he explains. This quality of energy, clarity and spatial vision is palpable in his work. He describes the unrelenting stream of decisions that must be made at every point in the process – about time, colour, light, texture, space. He talks about finding chairs for his design for Phèdre; the urgency in searching out exactly the right chair which tells the period, the culture, the civilisation – his words: ‘you can place that space instantly by the information that chair gives you.’ God and the designer are in these details, making and remaking worlds that return the gaze of the audience, that transport us into the action.

Bob Crowley is an artist in four dimensions and his early training in fine art at the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork points towards the quality of painterly and sculptural awareness of form, light, colour, and depth so apparent in his designs, for example, for Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Year of Magical Thinking with Vanessa Redgrave both at the Royal National Theatre. For the solo performance of Redgrave, the design included six paintings on silk that spanned the breadth of the stage, charting the character’s journey to the heart of grief, images that are internal landscapes of desolation.

Crowley trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and built his career in Britain. His breakthrough production was The Duchess of Malfi for the Royal Exchange in Manchester with Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins.

In fact Bob Crowley’s working relationship with both the RNT and the Royal Shakespeare Company have been at the core of his non-stop career for over thirty years. He has made designs for many productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and for contemporary works by Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Hampton, and David Hare, and his designs for opera include work at the Royal Opera, ENO, and Welsh National Opera and for mainland European and US companies.

Some of his major designs have been for musicals, and as a boy in Cork, he loved going to the theatre, musicals and pantomimes with his grandparents; when he saw a touring production of Oliver! designed by another Irish legend in British theatre, Sean Kenny, he was hooked.

In researching the production of Carousel, a huge success in London and on Broadway, he travelled with director Nicholas Hytner, to New England. They stopped at the Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake and saw the meeting house, built in the 1880s, the walls painted a beautiful indigo blue, symbolizing heaven. An image grew of an empty blue box with a revolving floor which was the essence of his design.

Theatre scenography is an elusive art, disappearing into the exquisite temporality of the performance moment; but traces remain: on the web, in photographs, model boxes, on film, and in memories. You may have seen Bob Crowley’s work in the costumes for the film of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis, or in his designs for opera in London or New York, or you may have lapped up the pleasure of his creations for Carousel or Once, Mary Poppins, Tarzan or Aida, or if you’ve seen Sting or Duran Duran in concert.

For Field Day Theatre Company you’ll have seen his work for St. Oscar with Stephen Rea as Oscar Wilde, or his co-direction with Rea of Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy. His design for The Three Sisters at the Gate Theatre staged the Cusack family father and daughters in unforgettable form. And if you were lucky enough to catch Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Abbey in 2011, you will have seen his acclaimed representation of the Georgian tenements of Dublin in 1922, what he calls the ‘falling down filthy decrepit grandeur’ in which Sean O’Casey’s Juno Boyle and her family lived. Crammed into subdivided rooms by ruthless landlords, the misery of their absolute poverty was framed with brutal irony by the fine proportions of pillar, cornice and oak floor, remote ceilings of shadowy Italian plasterwork, doorways made wide for elegant egress, their desperation defined by the exquisite light slanting through tall sash windows. The space lived with the actors, materialized the terrible lucidity of O’Casey’s vision. Bob Crowley’s respect for the collaborative process of theatre, for the world of the play and for the audience’s connection into it make him a designer of infinite variety and of genius.

Praehonorabilis Pro-Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.

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