Graphic Tensions: What Posters Say About Plays

For many people, a poster or flyer will be their first point of contact with a theatre production. In principle, these materials should carry basic information regarding who, what, where, and when; but also communicate something about the thrust of the performance itself: its directorial vision, its design choices, its aesthetic through-line. It’s all too easy to consider visual media of this kind as marketing pulp that performs a useful practical function, but not necessarily an artistic one. This is a mistake, and one which undermines not only graphic arts, but the visual arts at the heart of theatre practice, and the artistic spectrum in which they all participate.

There has been some really strong work at our national theatre recently, namely Nancy Harris’ No Romance, directed by Wayne Jordan, Stacy Gregg’s Perve, directed by Róisín McBrinn, and Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, directed by Annabelle Comyn. Next up is a production of Brian Friel’s Translations, directed by Conall Morrison. Despite the wealth of talent involved in these productions, and their indisputable achievements, the accompanying visual material and graphic design is surprisingly bland, and conveys little to nothing about the central artistic concept, let alone anything about the actors involved.

Abbey1979.jpgOf course the Abbey has produced some wonderful graphic design in the past. This is made apparent in the National Print Museum’s exhibition ‘Playboys, Paycocks and Playbills: Abbey Theatre Poster Design from the 1970s and 1980s,’ which has been touring the country since 2008. Featuring the work of Kevin Scally and Brendan Foreman, the collection aims to reveal how graphic design became increasingly important to the National theatre. But in recent collaborations between ZERO-G design and communications group, and an in-house designer, possibly starting with Arragh-na-Pogue in December last year, its design seems to have taken a different turn, and lost sight of the important connection between a production and its visual expression. Oddly enough, this appears to have peaked during the past two months as the theatre began to sell posters as part of its merchandise. If ever there was time to produce quality designs, surely it’s now.

An effective poster can hold a number of competing ideas within its borders; distilling, illuminating and ultimately deepening our understanding of a production. We can accredit Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec for making the first, sustained connection between graphic and theatrical arts in their vibrant designs for 19th century Parisian shows. For many people, their first impressions of a theatre piece are still based on encounters with graphic design. It relays factual information, but the crucial question we ask either consciously or otherwise is: ‘What does this image say about this production?’ And we should have a sense of what’s in store aesthetically as well as thematically.

The core image for No Romance is a punctured red helium balloon, lying by the roadside. Literally, it suggests deflation, but the image only really relates to the first part of the three-part piece, and even then struggles to register the emotional gravity of the play. That the foyer of the Peacock theatre was decorated with balloons on opening night, as if a romantic drama awaited us, further compounds the idea that there is a disconnect between what’s happening on stage and the visuals that surround it.

perve.jpgThe central image of Perve’s design is perhaps most representative of a recent lapse of focus. It’s simply a file icon that could be pulled from anyone’s personal store of clip art. Semantically, it implies a link between perversion and the use of a computer, but ultimately it says nothing about the core conflicts played out in the drama, let alone about the tone or styling of the performance.

With a rose emerging from a mouth - presumably Eliza Doolittle’s – the imagery for Pygmalion implies that the play and the production somehow celebrate the protagonist’s linguistic training. But neither Shaw nor Comyn understand Doolittle’s journey so simply, and it seems only right that the associated imagery would at least attempt to reflect this.

Translations will likely draw a crowd purely based on prior knowledge of the play. However, the poster for the forthcoming production is jaw-dropping in its awkward visuals and crude condensation of Friel’s subtle, complex text; whatever about Morrison’s yet to be seen production. On an acid green landscape, British landmarks are cut and pasted, as a statement of the imposition of British power. Although the play is set in 1833, Big Ben features predominantly, a structure not finished until 1858. If one didn’t know the play, you might think it was a Monty Pythonesque musical romp about Ireland’s colonial history. 

WERK.jpgSome companies seem more aware of the importance of visual media as part of their practice. In Dublin, THISISPOPBABY stand out, and their graphics – designed by Niall Sweeney of Pony LTD. - not only clearly connect with performances, but are central to the company’s on-going exploration of visual aesthetics. The posters for Werk, a series of performance-club nights which took place in the Peacock last summer, are among the best I’ve seen. Not only factually informative and visually arresting, they are conceptually layered in a way that captures the dynamism of the live Werk events.

Designed by Scott Burnett and Johnny Kelly of Aad for the past number of years, Corn Exchange’s art work is also strong, and manages to convey the style and tone of associated performances. ManValour.jpgThe poster for the  production of Man Of Valour, for instance, nods to Saul Bass’s many designs for Hitchcock’s films, and in so doing, contextualises the work in a particular way even before we have had the chance to see it, and creates a set of seductive expectations.

In the past number of years, vivid design has been central to the visual imagining of the Dublin Fringe Festival, and this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival could hardly look more eclectic or summery if it tried.

The overall design of a poster or flyer should not be seen as tangential to a theatre production: a supplemental marketing device used to communicate basic information.  Rather, these materials should be approached as intrinsic to that production, and approached with a sense of the overall aesthetic vision in mind. As both a window into a production, and eventually a record of its taking place, these visual materials are arguably as central as costumes, lighting and staging to a production. If we think of posters and flyers as mere advertising devices, then they can easily be compromised. Instead, we should think of them as active components within the larger creation, which cannot be easily ignored on the grounds of cost. Poor graphic design fails to make that important initial connection between the performance and the public. It also suggests that a company does not take its visual art very seriously, and for a theatrical culture that needs to continue exploring its physical and visual languages to match its literary ones, this is a shame, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

Image 1: Poster for Abbey Theatre’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. (1979).

Image 2: Poster for Abbey Theatre’s production of Perve (2011) at the Peacock.

Image 3. Poster for THISISPOPBABY’s Werk (2010) at the Peacock.  Designed by Niall Sweeney.

Image 4. Poster for Corn Exchange’s Man of Valour (2011). Designed by Scott Burnett and Johnny Kelly (Aad). Photograph by Richie Gilligan.



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