'Whatever theatre actors do during the daytime, each evening they go on stage to give a performance as "somebody else".
The dressing room is a physical space that allows for concentration and privacy so the psychological negotiation between the actor and this physical character can take place.
When "The Half" is called over the loudspeaker backstage, it signals the start of a 35 minute countdown to facing the audience. There is no escape.
It is rare to see actors in this point in their work.
Over 25 years Simon Annand has been give unprecedented access to photograph this in-between world that the audience never sees.' - V&A Exhibition Introduction
The Royal Court Theatre tipped off its Facebook and Twitter followers to this exhibition about a month ago. Simon Annand has been one of it's main production photographers for years. I did a little looking around on his website and was intrigued at the idea behind his non production photographs. You don't need a trained eye to differentiate between great, average of poor production photography. Just think of what attracts your eye when seeing the photos in relation to an article or review. There are some that you can get lost in and make you want to see a show and there are others that, possibly unintentionally, reveal a production on a low to nil budget. Great and interesting production photographs are really important as they are the ones that get published in publications like Time Out and ultimately help sell show.
What separates a professional production photographer from the rest is the professional can shoot all levels of productions and get wonderful pictures no matter what physical space, costumes or lighting is available. What also separates them is the ability to identify and capture a specific moment with a production that can speak volumes - usually the actors expression or a subtle interplay between two or more actors. This ability to genuinely understand a production or more specifically actors is the reason why The Half, Simon Annand's 'in-between' photos are so wonderful.
I kind of divide the photos into three categories - resting, active and waiting. The 'resting' photos could sometimes be mistaken for posed shots. Two examples come readily to mind. There's a lovely serene photo of Obi Abili leaning against a black brick wall backstage at the Old Vic during Six Degrees of Separation. At first glance it could be mistaken for a fashion shoot but it perfectly captures a moment when he just happened to be leaning against a wall while mentally preparing for his scene. There is another photo of Christopher Eccleston with a cigar (see photo above) which could seem staged but there's something about what is going on behind his eyes that says otherwise.
The 'active' photos come in two forms - actively preparing to go on via makeup or costume which, although interesting to see, didn't reveal as much about the actor as the others, and the physical process actors engage in prior to going on. My favourite of these is of Ruth Wilson, I think from her performance in Philistines at the National, lying on her back on the floor of her dressing room, doing mild stretching exercises. The moment that's captured almost has a religious quality, partly due to her costume and the pose. Finally, I find the 'waiting' photos the most revealing. They could almost be grouped with 'resting' but there's something active about them although their physical pose is passive. You can see the mind working. There's a great one of Cary Mulligan sitting on stairs backstage during the 2007 Royal Court revival of The Seagull where you can almost see her thoughts.
There is another division beyond this. The photos on the three walls of the gallery are all black and white, covering productions basically from 2008 backwards. In the center of the gallery there is a temporary mount with all colour photos from recent productions - some just finished and a few still running - Breakfast at Tiffany's, Over There, Six Degrees of Separation and Annie Get Your Gun to name a few. These are glorious. The colour captures an added essence.
The final element of the exhibition is the moving image. There's a looped short film that gives a little background information about Simon Annand and (my favourite bit) a filmed 'half', backstage at the Royal Court during the recent production of Cock. It alternates between filmed images in the dressing room, and moving images of the same period of time. It then goes onto the Cock stage to show three of the actors doing warm-ups consisting of stretching and running around. It ends in the hallway leading to the performance space as they wait to go on. If you go onto Simon Annaud's site (click this blog title above to go there) you can see the video. There's a portion that isn't on the website, a slide show of more recent production photos - some are also in the exhibition.
If you love theatre or are just fascinated by what goes on backstage than you'll really enjoy this. Simon has a book also called, funny enough, 'The Half' which has been out for a while. Most of the photos in the exhibition are included with the added extras of additional photos of the same subject. The more recent productions however, aren't included.
If you have never been to the V&A or the Theatre and Performance Gallery you more than likely will have to ask for directions. To be honest, I was a bit thrown as I had completely forgotten that the V&A now housed the contents of the old Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. The exhibition itself has not been heavily promoted and the listing for it on the website and in their literature is not obvious.
Before I headed into 'The Half' I looked around the Theatre and Performance Gallery. It has a few interesting things to see with my highlightbeing one of the horse heads form the original production of Equus. Unfortunately, the entire gallery only mildly diverting and one gets the impression that either there isn't alot to put on display or there isn't enough space to put everything out so only the items that pertain directly to the 'theme' of a specific section are there - 'rehearsal', 'design', 'costumes' etc...However, that proved to be a bit problematic because the theatre items are interspersed with costumes and items from the music world - a smashed Pete Townsend guitar, Adam Ant's Prince Charming costume, an early Mick Jagger unitard (god he was small), an early Elton John costume (with platforms) and a replication of Kylie Minogue's Wembley dressing room. It must be a nightmare trying to tie all the various elements together and it's not an easy fit. Overall I would say it is very run of the mill and think it was designed as an general theatre introduction. We can only pray that Theatre gets its own comprehensive museum in the future but until then this is all there is but the good news is - it's free.
Posted by Barry Wilson at Thursday, March 11, 2010