ArtsAlive.ca – Persuading Presence
image:Tour the Collection With guest curator Scott McKowen

Tour the Collection
With guest curator Scott McKowen

Theatre Posters

image:Unity, mil neuf cent dix-huit image:The Tempest image:Ghosts image:Hamlet 1979 image:Hamlet 2003-2004 image:Elsinore

The NAC Poster Collection contains many superb examples of this graphic design problem-solving process. Kevin Kerr’s Governor General’s Award-winning play Unity, mil neuf cent dix-huit (Unity, 1918 in English) examines how the deadly Spanish flu epidemic, which killed up to 50 million people following World War I, affects the small community of Unity, Saskatchewan. The haunting silhouette illustration for this 2003 production directed by Claude Poissant, shows Unity isolated in the distance behind a row of crosses marking the makeshift graves of victims. The graphic strength of the illustration appears to come from the printing process: the sky is a single-colour silkscreen on dark red paper. The effect of the clouds comes from blending different ink colours pulled through the same stencil. Image and words are beautifully integrated by the choice of hand-drawn type.

In the poster for John Wood’s production of The Tempest (1981), the sky, sea and beach of Prospero’s magical island are flat rectangles of colour. These elements are broken only by the thinnest sliver of a new moon – “O brave new world” – and a faint shimmer of atmospheric movement, overprinted in metallic silver ink, which might be the first trace of the gathering storm that opens the story.

Costumes designed by Mark Negin for The Tempest can be viewed in The Secret Life of Costumes.

A highly effective poster for Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts(1981) consists of distorted shadows cast on a wall by a figure descending a staircase. But the ghosts in this play are the taboo topics of venereal disease, incest, illegitimate children and euthanasia, which could not be discussed openly in Victorian society. The sepia tones of Andrée Gagné’s photographic illustration make it feel like a nightmare version of a real Victorian photograph. This poster takes me right inside Mrs. Alving’s house, and the world of this play.

Costumes designed by Robin Fraser Paye for this play can be viewed in The Secret Life of Costumes.

A stark black and white photograph of actor Neil Munro as Hamlet, brandishing a handgun, instantly establishes the contemporary setting of John Wood’s 1979 production. By contrast, a colour photograph of Tom Rooney tells you that Marti Maraden’s 2004 production of Hamlet has a more traditional Renaissance setting.

The poster for Elsinore, Robert Lepage’s 1997 adaptation of Hamlet, also uses photography. In the poster, we can make out elements of the duel scene at the end of the play (a sword hilt, the poisoned cup spilled on the floor, the pearl which Claudius offers as a prize to the winner) but the photo is broken into two parts: a red image in negative, and a smaller black image in positive. This “diptych” layout suggests Lepage’s deconstructionist approach to the project, but it works on other levels as well. The mysterious positive/negative images evoke the supernatural elements of the story (the ghost of Hamlet’s father.) Diptychs have been used in ecclesiastical art for centuries as altarpieces, so this poster even manages to underscore the many biblical and Christian allusions in the play.