THE ART OF STAGE DESIGN: HISTORY AND CONTEMPORANEITY

Issue #3-4 • 2187

In the first performances of the European-style Uzbek theatre, which were distinct in their spirit of enlightenment, the principle was to show on stage snatches of reality, with an attempt to comply to it both in costumes and makeup. Real tea and food were served on stage, houses and offices were constructed. With experience, Jadid theatre, for example, started showing two opposing sides in contrasts, based on the conflict in the piece. Mannon Uygur, when staging dramas by Khamza “Poisoned Life” (1918), “Bai* and a Farm-hand” (1919, 1929), employed the same principle of presentation. And in staging comedies such as “Slumber”, “Is It Easy to Be a Lawyer?” (A. Avloni), “Turkish Doctor”, “Twelve-Hour Government”, “House of Science” (M. Uygur), “Fool” (A. Badri), “Punishment of the Slanderers” (Khamza) and translated from Azerbaijani language “Khur-Khur” (S. Muzagaini), “Neither Fish Nor Foul” (M. Kazimovskiy), “Dursunali Balibodi” (S. Ganizade), and “Arshin-Mal-Alan”, “If Not She, than Her” (U. Gajubekova) in most cases, when defining place and time of action, they used methods of the oral tradition theatre: conventionality and grotesque.

Successful staging (12 August, 1919 and 26 March, 1920) of a drama by Azerbaijani playwright S. Urdubodi “The Last Days of Andalusia” tuned out to be a significant event in the development of stage culture. Specifically for this performance, d?cor was manufactured. A well-known man of theatre M. Mukhamedov noted that this performance was a milestone in “the transition of theatre into the jurisdiction of the government, therefore, d?cor, implements and costumes had been created anew and presented on the stage. D?cor was created by an Austrian artist, a prisoner of war, who beautifully portrayed the main sites of the Arab State in Spain. The d?cor, as a truly living art, deserves praise. For the first time in the history of Uzbek theatre it was the docor that the audience vividly responded to and applauded”. (1)

Between 1914 and 1924 the development of the new theatre saw both progress and drawbacks in the sphere of theatrical decorative art. During that period only a limited number of plays were provided with special materials for d?cor. The company did not have a full-time stage designer. For this reason actions during performances were shown conventionally, primarily through the use of prefabricated elements of d?cor for various plays. E. Ismailov, specialist in drama study, wrote: “D?cor was built mainly by the effort of the company. Available to the theatre one or two abstract backgrounds, a machine tool crudely made of timber, a coach, a table, few chairs, pottery and other properties were present in almost all plays and the audience knew them by heart.” (2, p. 38)

During the first years of its development (1914-1927), the new European-style Uzbek theatre showed its performances on a stage that was positioned at a distance from the audience. Docor, costumes and implements were manufactured specifically for the purpose. The spectator was being educated in the spirit of enlightenment, and the theatre carried the ideas of national identity and national pride. Uzbek theatre rested upon the experience of Azerbaijani and Tatar theatre companies and partly upon that of Russian theatre.

In 1924-27, in the Uzbek studio in Moscow, the studio company used practical sessions to gradually master not only acting technique and stage performance culture, but also the creation of d?cor, costumes, makeup, dummies and props. In this process Uzbek actors were largely assisted by their work on the plays “Princess Turandot” and “Revizor” (“Inspector”). When preparing for the “Princess Turandot”, the studio company learned from the masters of the Vakhtangov school such as R. Simonov, I. Tolchanov and O. Basov.

The staging the tragedies by English playwright William Shakespeare “Hamlet” (1935) and “Otello” (1941) in the Uzbek Drama Theatre named after Khamza was very important for the development of professional skill of directing and acting and for the mastering of stage design skill. Director and producer Mannon Uygur, while working on the generalized and metaphorical solution for the stage d?cor and costumes, invited an experienced theatre designer I. Shlepyanov from Moscow, who drew his inspiration from Renaissance architecture. On the stage the audience saw a palace that resembled a labyrinth that consisted of archways and columns, long footpaths and stairways. Uygur called it “chil ustun”. Walking through these labyrinths, Hamlet is contemplating his life. Stage design created by Shlepyanov demonstrated the world of treachery and scheming, in which the main character found himself. Stairways and landings, archways and columns changed as the play progressed, creating a plastic environment and thus helping actors to create a character on stage. Unfortunately, the artist was accused of abstractionism for this metaphorical solution. Eventually this d?cor was replaced with the work by V. V. Roberg (from the Tashkent Russian Drama Theatre) that was distinctively specific, realistically presenting the scene of action. But at the same time, romanticism and pathos of the first production disappeared. During the staging of “Hamlet” the theatre developed almost all ancillary shops to produce d?cor, costumes, makeup, dummies, properties, light effects, etc. The Uzbek National Drama Theatre named after Khamza became a model for other theatres also in exploring the area that had been considered secondary before. Artist and stage designers from the theatre helped to organize these shops in other theatres in the capital city and in the provinces.

That was a difficult period for creative thought: time of an ongoing fight against currents, such as formalism, naturalism, abstractionism… The only method of representing life that was recognized was the one that complied with requirements of social realism. A criterion against which the work of theatre artists was evaluated was realistic presentation and the quality of being specific. The objective was to create an illusion of reality of place and time of action on stage.

For the Khamza and other theatre companies, early 1950s was the time when their repertoire was enriched with new national plays and the genre structure changed. D?cor offered interpretation of the realities of life. It reflected countryside landscapes, urban atmosphere, and the scene of action was clearly identified. Starting from the second half of 1950s, certain progress in stage design began to show. A true creative partnership between director and stage designer was being established and grew stronger. This trend first manifested itself in the Khamza theatre, and later on in provincial theatres too.

Staging of the play “Algeria, My Homeland!” had radically changed the notion about the significance of d?cor and costume. Designer Kh. Ikramov, employing the method of constructivism, created on stage a large household courtyard that resembled an ant-house, with countless stairways and balconies, windows and doors. This was home for the impoverished representatives of Algerian people. Ikramov’s creative solution matched character solution of the director A. Ginzburg, amplifying the impression. A symbol of people’s anguish is a large yard, deep well, fathomless prison. At the end of the play, the fortress, stunning in its authenticity, collapses, and its long-suffering inhabitants take to the streets to join a demonstration. Emotional and metaphorical solution found by the director and stage designer was indicative in presenting the nation’s struggle for freedom.

During the first half of 1960s, theatres were searching for a metaphorical solution in stage direction and stage design, but daily illusionary, conventionally symbolic, pictorial and monumental techniques continued to live and coexist. Designers from provincial theatres M. Abbasov, V. Ligai, G. Kim, T. Gaipov, V. Davydov and A. Kim strived for metaphorical solution for a play. But their work was held back by naturalistic details, enthusiasm for ethnography, opposition between directors and stage designers looking for new facets and possibilities of the stage and those who were using old methods to represent life. The only way out was to free d?cor from copying the actual reality.

The arrival of new generation of artists to Uzbekistan theatres in late 1960s and 1970s (G. Brim, A. Zhiboedov, R. Tumankov, A. Shibaev, and later on R. Allabergenov, V. Mikhailichenko, T. Sharakhimov, M. Eshankhojaev. E. Mukhamedov, U. Saidaliev, O. Alieva) was marked by a step forward in the art of stage design. These masters and artists who had learned the depth of the world’s theatre history, stage design, new methods and techniques, raised stage design onto the pedestal of art, level with easel and monumental painting.

The Pleiades of the new wave artists was led by G. Brim. In finding stage design solutions for plays, the artist was governed by the piece content and genre while finding support in architectural details and immediately in the principles of construction. This method was used repeatedly and became his artistic signature in plays such as “Bai and a Farm-hand” (Khamza, 1969), “King Oedipus” (Sophocles, 1970), “Abu Raikhan Beruni” (Uigun, 1973), “Not Listed” (V. Vasiliev, 1978) that were produced by the Khamza Uzbek National Drama Theatre. Specifically, in the “Bai and a Farm-hand” drama it was the cage-house; in “King Oedipus” it was a grave and unchangeable prayer, just like the fate of the main character; in “Abu Raikhan Beruni” mikhrab was key to solving stage imagery. By using traditional architectural decorum in different angles and sizes the artist broadens the boundaries of a stage, and as a result, there appear streets, squares and palaces where the action takes place.

In early 1980s, significant changes took place in the historical drama and its implementation on stage. A play “Nodira-begim” produced by director B. Yuldashev can be described as a moan, or a cri de coeur. Stage design was of a particular significance in portraying Nodira’s tragedy and in exposing a paradoxical epoch in which she lived. Designer G. Brim employed symbolically allegoric presentation technique. Five columns decorated with tracery fill out the stage space. All events unfold around these columns. An orchard is visible from afar. With capacious means and symbols the artists shows the struggle between light and darkness, enlightenment and ignorance. In the last scene of the play the five columns with burnt tops, black wings and attires create a stage image of collapse in the khan’s palace.

A revelation in histrionic art was a play titled “Starry Nights” (Khamza Theatre, 1983) dedicated to Zakhiriddin, Mukhammad Babur. Here the role of stage design was significant in creating an integral stage environment through the unification of different events and historical personalities. For instance, a bundle of gazel poems is lowered down on the right side of the stage. There are spears on the proscenium. On the stage there are three wheels (charkhpalak) that symbolize Babur’s life in youth, maturity and old age. The sky is strewn with stars; in the upper part of the stage a seriously ill Babur (Y. Akhmedov) gives his son Humayun, heir to the throne, his book of life “Baburname”. Humayun (T. Muminov) starts reading it. Babur is recollecting his life. Historical personalities gradually appear from a pit in the proscenium as if from the depth of ages. Events are presented in a quick pace. At the end of the play the spectator is again next to the ailing Babur. Conventionally allegorical solution employed by the artist becomes the means to link the events and different historical personalities.

In the 1980s, excessive decoration and pomposity are not to be seen either in d?cor or costume. In most cases a metaphorical solution or a conventionally allegorical method is used to ensure artistic integrity of a play. This was particularly noticeable in the productions of “Nodira-begim”, “Starry Nights” and “Zebunisso”.

Of a particular success in the Khamza Theatre was a tragedy by M. Shaikhzade “Mirzo Ulugbek” (1989). U. Saidaliev created a d?cor giving consideration to the power of mind and prudence of the main character. The only structure built on the stage, rotating, turned into a harem, an observatory, a square, a street, a prison. At the front there was an archway, with iron gate moving up and down, thus separating the chain of events. Daily life details are absent from the d?cor. Execution scene gives powerful impression. Wounded by the hand of Abbas, Ulugbek is ascending along the stairway of the observatory. The structure rotates. At the lower part of the observatory there is a throne upon which sits Abdullatif, the patricide. The expression on his face is not a winner’s grin, but fear, anxiety, alarm. Above him is the wall of the observatory and Mirzo Ulugbek’s dead body. By this technique the director and the designer declare that Mirzo Ulugbek won spiritual and moral victory, he belongs to the future generations. Artistic solution in the play always produced very strong impression on the audience.

During the years of independence the galaxy of old, middle and new, young generation artists continued working in the theatres. Artists of older generation are V. Ligai (Andijan), J. Safaev (Samarqand); those of the middle one are G. Brim, T. Sharakhmedov, A. Zhiboedov, B. Kurbanov (all from Tashkent theatres), N. Sultanov (Samarqand); those of the younger generation are B. Turaev (The Uzbek National Drama Theatre), Z. Batyrov (The National Opera and Ballet Theatre named after Navoi), Sh. Abdumalikov (The Uzbek Drama Theatre named after A. Khidoyatov), N. Glubokina (The Uzbek Young Audience Theatre), F. Rajabov (Fergana theatre). Up until 1996 the artists were guided by G. A. Brim. Today this mission is the charge of B. Turaev and Sh. Abdumalikov, as well as some young artists such as N. Glubokina, M. Ivanyan, S. Sedukhin and M. Soshina.

1980s and 1990s were the years of a turning point in the history of Uzbek theatre. Historical and folklore-ethnographical plays had a special significance for the development of stage design. Traditional performances and folklore/historical productions have become one of the style trends in the Uzbek histrionic art.
The 1990s production of a play titled “Alisher Navoi” in the Khamza Theatre was a continuation of a search in the domain of historical drama. Designer A. Zhiboedov put the piece in a d?cor of conventionally metaphorical style. Its creative solution is symbolized by a throne and a quill. At the stage centre there is a road; coming out from the depth of the stage, Navoi is moving towards the audience along the road, the symbol of which corresponds to the final dialogue between Hussein Baikara and Navoi. These are the last words Navoi pronounces: “To my own people, to my own art”. On the left and right side of the wings there hang Navoi’s rubai and a four-line verse by Hussein Baikara: thus the director and stage designer offered new interpretation of the relationship between the poet and the ruler.

“Lord of Heaven” (1998) based on a play written by Kh. Rasul, has been a milestone production for the Khamza Theatre. The piece was produced by the director V. Umarov and stage designer B. Turaev in a monumentally allegorical style. In the idea and its implementation the director and the designer were united.

In 2003, the Uzbek National Drama Theatre produced “Fairy Tales of Days Gone By” (inspired by the work of Gafur Gulyam), staging by U. Azim. By this play the director V. Umarov and designer B. Turaev demonstrated the outcome of a joint creative aspiration. The play is a wonderful combination of all components, i.e. director’s solutions and acting skills, visual setting and soundtrack. Designer B. Turaev, in keeping with the genre, which the director identified as “a fairy tale for adults”, created a lightweight and quickly changeable d?cor.

So, stage design in the Uzbek 20th century theatre has a long path of evolution and development. It gave consideration to the requirements of stage culture, created styles and techniques dictated by the time, yet without rejecting forgotten and once prohibited visualization styles.

Today Uzbek theatre stage designers also act in the capacity of producers, stage managers, set designers, and sometimes even set directors. Prevalent on the stage are metaphor, extensive use of symbols and philosophical and poetic solutions.

Literature:

  1. Воспоминания М. Мухамедова. НИИ искусствознания. Рукописный фонд, Т/М/, 367/10.
  2. Исмоилов Э. Маннон Уйгур. Ташкент, 1983.

Dilafruz Kadyrova

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