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  4. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: The Use of Set and Costume Design in Modern Productions of Ancient Greek Drama

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: The Use of Set and Costume Design in Modern Productions of Ancient Greek Drama

In this essay, I will discuss the importance of set and costume design in contemporary productions of Greek drama and will demonstrate the fundamental importance of design to any given production, both within the creative process and in performance. I draw on examples offered by contemporary set and costume designers and I try to categorize and explain their decisions wherever possible. Of necessity, I have limited my choice of productions, designers, and directors to a set of (around) a dozen examples; all of these can be found catalogued in the database.[1] It is hoped that the reader will be able to apply the basic ideas expounded here to a fuller range of productions than those alluded to in the text.

Set and costume design is just one area of the theatre’s ‘visual systems’ that affects the creation and reception of a play. Sets and costumes are created within a specific theatrical space for a specific period of performance. The notion of theatrical space is, of course, very important in the understanding of set and costume design.[2]

Theatrical semiotics

There are two major design components that make up the visual semiotics, or design, of any performance: set and costume. These design elements reflect the themes and mood, style, and emotions of a play, as well as indicating the historical or geographic context of the production. The design of a play can be of fundamental importance to its conceptionalization by a director or, conversely, the director’s initial conception of a play can force the design (or the designer) to work in a particular way. In both cases, the design is open to another level of reception as it subsequently acts as a communicator to the audience. The audience reception of the design can be an important factor in a director’s choice of the visual elements of a production, as the experience of theatre director Richard Foreman, for example, suggests:

Often, I’ve developed the visual aspect of the performance to a point where it becomes the major emotional element affecting the audience.[3]

Design is closely allied with the discipline of semiology - the science of reading signs - which is, according to Foucault,

the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to define what constitutes them as signs, and to know how and by what laws they are linked.[4]

In other words, semiology (in a theatrical context) is concerned with the way in which meaning is developed and conveyed from the time a director (assuming that it is the director who makes the initial decision to stage a particular play) first reads a play to the moment when it is interpreted (in various ways) by the audience. Semiology cannot concentrate simply on one system of signs (like that which, say, governs the set or the costumes) because it needs to identify a body of signs making up a Gestalt that signifies a whole. Design elements (like set and costume, but also lights and props) need to be read together and incorporated into the bigger picture of theatrical space, audience layout, acting style, music, poster imagery and so on.[5]


A stage design properly conceived and executed should express the core meaning of the production. Set and costume designs are not just a collection of images, they are the expression of mood, the presence that enhances and comments on the performance. Design creates dramatic action, causes tension in a visual form; it is a signifier of performance meaning. Design is an integral part of the whole production process; it is disheartening to see designs which lack coherence and are given a poor second place in any production.

This is not to say that costume and set design has to be elaborate or expensive. Some performances are staged without set or created environment, and while this may be due to budgetary considerations and/or technical availability, sometimes it is a conscious decision on the part of the designer and/or the director.[6] A simple design can be tremendously effective as long as there is strict unity between the design and other aspects of the production. The set and costume designs (by Christopher Barreca and Chigeru Yaji) for Mark Ruker’s production of Birds (1998), for example, were extremely simple but wonderfully effective, using masses of white balloons to create the clouds in Cloudcuckooland, and everyday household objects to conjure up a wide variety of plumage for the bird chorus (DB ref. no. 1006).

When all the visual elements combine, a sense of design is born and the full impact of the theatre experience can be interpreted (in various ways) by the audience.[7] In this essay, the focus of attention will be drawn towards the set and costume designs of a series of productions, but where they become crucially important to the overall design, allusion will be made to lighting and properties too.

The role of the designer

In 1980, in a rare article on the importance of stage design to the success of a production, a popular Sunday newspaper magazine noted:

The theatre designer is a comparatively unsung hero in British cultural life.[8]

While it is true that there are few theatre design superstars (there are, of course exceptions like Edward Gordon Craig, Jocelyn Herbert, John Napier, Theoni V. Aldridge, and Maria Bjornson), the role of the designer within the theatre business is one that commands (for the most part) enormous authority and prestige.[9] Much of the designer’s authority stems from the fact that he or she must share in a production’s creative process with the director, supporting, adjusting, augmenting or vetoing his/her creative decisions. The designer may be the first person to visualize the ‘look’ of a production, or may be called upon to help realize the director’s initial vision; ideally the two people will work together in mutual artistic harmony to create a single vision. Of course, the director always has the final decision over the production design; it is the director, after all, who has to work within the designated theatre space and within the parameters of the design decisions.

The close partnership that is expected to develop between the director and the designer frequently results in the formation of close working relationships that continue over many years. The director John Barton worked closely with designer John Napier for many years, while Peter Hall, and, indeed, Tony Harrison, established an excellent working method with designer Jocelyn Herbert. While some directors prefer to design productions themselves, it is far more usual to find a director collaborating with a designer, or even with a team of designers.

But the director-designer relationship can be very complicated and work on several levels simultaneously. Many directors like to have the designers at close hand during the rehearsal process, to the extent that the designer is encouraged to attend rehearsals in order that he/she will be able to comment on the picturization and blocking (i.e. the physical movement of actors on the stage) as they develop, or discuss issues of design practicalities (the angle of the rake of the stage, the number of steps on the set, the length of a costume’s train).

Set design

Set designers orchestrate visual elements such as line, form, colour, mass, and balance. Ideally, the set should always help the performers by providing them with an appropriate background for creating mood and atmosphere and provide them with a workable apparatus. The role of the set as an apparatus for the performers’ physicality was fundamental to Actors of Dionysus’ production of Bacchae (DB ref 2534), in which the steel scaffolding set acted as a climbing frame for the energetic clamberings of Dionysus and his Maenads.

A good set design should fit the theatrical space to its best advantage and complement the costumes and the lighting, although a set design might also be crafted in such a way as to provide a deliberate contrast to the costumes. The set design should challenge or endorse the visual aesthetics of the audience, encourage creative blocking and picturization on the part of the director and the cast, and serve the needs of the script. All in all, the set design must reflect the artistic vision of the production.

Therefore, the set designer (with the director) has to consider whether the set should be a naturalistic, realistic or authentic recreation of a particular location (imaginary or otherwise), like a temple, palace forecourt, or a seashore, or whether it should be a more abstract (or even surreal) interpretation of the same location. There is also a possibility that the designer might employ both naturalistic and abstract elements for the design; this might include the incorporation of the architectural elements of the theatre space itself. Each of these choices will affect the audience’s perception of the production and the performer’s use of space. These decisions have to be decided early, as any later mistakes could prove costly, both in terms of time and finance.

An example of the merging of abstract, naturalistic and architecturally imposed design elements can be found in the Living Pictures Productions’ staging of Euripides’s Andromache (DB ref 2535). As figures 1, 2, and 3 suggest, the action of the play was set on a beach and used a sand-strewn floor-cloth to emphasize the fact. This gave a naturalistic feel to the stage floor, which was in contrast to the shrine of the goddess Thetis which had an abstract and minimalist beauty, created as it was from a simple raised rostrum, white plaster herm of the goddess, and one overhanging bow of a tree which provided a sense of being outdoors and allowed the lighting to create an interesting play of shadows on the stage floor. The performers played out the drama against the back wall of the theatre, which was left undecorated save for painted gold lines on a set of two double doors, which served as grand entranceways into the ‘palace’ beyond.[10]

In the initial design stages, certain important decisions have to be made by the designer and director. They need to decide whether the set should be coloured or monotone, and, if coloured, whether there should be a limited colour palette. The designer needs to decide about the interplay of light and dark on the stage and question the appropriateness of using, say, large bright open spaces and dark secluded areas within the set. Moreover, the designer and director need to decide whether the stage will be a flat surface or levelled with the use of rostra or scaffolding to add height and visual variety to the stage picture.

The set establishes the frame of action on stage, using pictorial, plastic, architectural or other means and the set can communicate a variety of meanings, moods, and interpretations; chief among these is a sense of the historical period in which the production is located. More often than not these days, however, in the staging of a Greek play, the historical period is unspecified: David Leveaux’s Electra (DB ref. no. 1005), for example, was described by theatre critic Peter Marks thus:

"designed by John Engels to exist in some fantastic limbo between the classical and contemporary worlds – the set encompasses fragments of Greek columns and broken pieces of modern furniture." [11]

But sometimes a more precise historical period is suggested: Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (DB ref 1111 & 1112) had the look of 1940s Eastern Europe, The Actors of Dionysus set their Antigone (1998) in the Late Medieval/Early Renaissance era (DB ref. no. 282), and the Bloomsbury Theatre’s 1999 Lysistrata was set in 1920s high-society (DB ref. no. 1049), while Toph Marshal’s Canadian production of Helen was rooted in the 1930s (DB ref. 266). Other productions are even more exact: Michael Ewans’s 1997 Antigone was specifically set in Bosnia in 1994 (DB ref. no. 829). It is very rare, however, to find a production of a Greek play that specifically sets it in the time of its original composition and performance.

The set also informs the audience of the geographical location of the play (in the city or town, in Sparta or Susa, etc). Greek tragedy and comedy usually locate the action in a specific place; this may or may not be observed in modern productions. Actors of Dionysus’s production of Oedipus the King went as far as placing two large tapestry maps on the stage floor from which the audience was able to pinpoint the locations of the play - Thebes, Corinth, and Delphi (DB ref. no. 934). Peter Sellars’s The Persians of 1993 clearly established the setting in Gulf War Iraq (DB ref. no. 208). As Benedict Nightingale of The Times noted,

"Don’t be fooled by the occasional references to conquering Athenians or by the characters’ classical names. Instead listen to the smart bombs as they fizz overhead. . . . The bare Royal Lyceum stage is, it seems, Baghdad during the Gulf War."[12]

The set might refer to an exact place or location (such as a palace, a woodland, or a seashore). Two productions of Euripides’s Ion are particularly noteworthy for the detailed reconstruction of the ancient sacred precinct of Delphi. The first, which was originally produced in Cambridge in 1994 and then toured in Britain and Greece under the direction of Nick Philippou, was designed by Moggie Douglas who cleverly created a huge white marble pediment of the temple of Apollo which was crowded with mythological scenes of bending and falling human figures interspersed among chariot horses (DB ref. no.144). The second (big[ger] budget) production directed for the RSC also in 1994 by Nicholas Wright had a set which was described as

"an impressive piece of archaeology, a literalization of Euripides’ text, beautiful but not so overwhelming that the actors would get lost against it."[13]

The set consisted of,

"reliefs which looked like museum casts . . . An altar, Mycenaean style, hammered gold foil over carved wooden reliefs, Gorgons prominent among them, raised on a stepped dais before a not-quite doorway in the centre of the temple." (DB ref. no. 143).[14]

The set design can also give an indication of the time of day, although this, of course, was generally of little importance to the ancient Greek dramatists who seem to have observed the constraints of playing in the open air during the hours of daylight. [15] Nevertheless, modern directors and designers often find an appropriate temporal location for their settings. A 1996 production of a modern-dress Lysistrata (designed and directed by Paul Atkins) set the action during the course of a day (DB ref. no. 997). Likewise, the seasons of the year are rarely specified in the ancient texts, nor in their modern realizations. However, Actors of Dionysus’ recent production of Grave Gifts (DB ref 1113) set the action in a bitterly cold winter landscape, while Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia seemed to progress from summer to winter.

The set design can, with the aid of lighting, also hint at weather conditions: while rumbling thunder is a common feature of modern tragic productions, few are explicit about weather conditions in the stage design itself. In Silviu Purcarete’s remarkable 1998 Agamemnon (DB ref. no. 941), however, the large double doors within the side walls of the ‘palace’ set were used to good effect as they periodically slammed open and closed with the force of a torrential storm raging outside the palace.

Above and beyond providing the audience with an indication of the time and location of the play, the set must create the mood and atmosphere of the production. All designers hope that their creations will arouse an emotional response in the spectator as it creates the correct atmosphere for the production. The mood can sometimes be emphasized by the emblematic use of scenic elements or a particular design facet which is singled out to stand as a hallmark for a production. For Purcarete, for example, the emphasis was put on the bright blue cyclorama that provided a background to his stark Agamemnon set. In front of the cyclorama, perched in line on top of the ‘palace’ roof, were the silhouettes of six black vultures, an evocative image for the precarious, decaying state of Argos. The silhouetted birds of prey provided a visual key into the production as the audience took its seats; they also became the production’s most enduring image. Similarly, few spectators of Ninagawa’s Medea at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986 will forget the visual impact of Medea’s dragon-led fiery chariot appearing in the night sky above the neoclassical pediment of the open-air stage building. In this one colourful image, Ninagawa emphasized both Medea’s familial association with the Sun god and his own Oriental background.

The designer must ensure that the set and other design elements of the mis-en-scène either merge together to form a well-conceived unity, or, if desired, that they diversify and clash, bringing deliberate discord. The purposeful correlation of the design elements of a production means that all the theatrical visual systems (set, costumes, lights, props, poster and programme design) work in harmony; if a production, like David Leveaux’s Electra, is set in Bosnia in 1994 (see DB ref. no. 829), then all the design factors must work together to convince the audience that they are witnessing a sequence of events happening in a particular time and place. It is not appropriate for a character to appear in ancient Greek costume, unless the director and/or designer want to emphasize some discrepancy or correlation between, say, past and present events. Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia, for example, is a very good instance of the effective use of integrated design. Pseudo-1940s Eastern Europe was reflected in set details, costumes, props, music and dance, while high-tech digital gadgetry, like camcorders and microphones and less imposing technical gadgetry like hand-held cassette recorders and old typewriters, were merged together to create a unique visual system. Fused together, these seemingly disparate elements created a unified whole which was also reflected in the non-production aspects of the work, the poster and the programme designs. The main image for the programme and the poster showed a young girl’s dress, in 1940s style, trampled into the wet sand of a shoreline. In the distance there lay a single little shoe. The image is meant to focus the spectator’s mind on the tragedy of the young Iphigeneia, and the legitimacy of her sacrifice is questioned by the photographs scattered throughout the programme, where more items of her clothing are tagged and bagged like evidence at a murder trial. The potency of the imagery is endorsed within the production itself, where the bloody carpet that was spread on the ground for Agamemnon’s hubristic entry into his palace was actually formed from dozens of little girls’ blood-soaked dresses.

Sometimes, however, deliberate discord within the design elements can amplify or confuse the mood or atmosphere of the production. Mnouchkine and her design team interspersed some subtle but significant aspects of visual conflict in the production of Les Atrides (1990-1992, DB ref. 152). In Eumenides, for example, the bullring-like structure of the set and Nathalie Thomas’s Oriental kimono-like costumes for the three Furies were set off against contemporary footwear – battered trainers and pumps. The footwear detail was small, but deliberate and was meant to draw out the shared commonalities across time periods and cultures.

Recent Trends

It would appear that a healthy trend has shaped up since the early 1960s wherein set design has been freed of its imitative (or representational) role and has become an integral contributor to the performance as a whole. The design of Greek tragedy in particular is certainly responding to the general trend of innovative theatrical design. Broadly speaking, the typographic design elements of contemporary Greek drama productions can be classed as:

  • Modern dress.
  • Modern dress war-zone.
  • Modern dress, Eastern European (particularly popular in the late 1990s).
  • A nebulous thing called "Timeless" which is often an amalgamation of styles. This ‘look’ can be achieved through the thoughtless and imprecise amalgamation of styles. Alternatively, of course, "Timelessness" can a carefully created design statement which, through an amalgamation of styles emphasizes commonalities or, conversely, plays-up disjunction.
  • A period-specific production.
  • Oriental, Eastern.
  • "The Greek past", i.e., a production where actors wear ancient Greek style costumes and perform on Greek-inspired architectural settings, but where they do not use authentic Greek stage design conventions like masks, the orchestra, skene, etc.
  • "The Greek past" with authentic Greek production details, eg. masks, ekkyklema, skene, the crane, etc.

Of course, not all productions necessarily sit comfortably in one or any of those categories. Some productions may share different design conventions or merge elements during the course of the performance, as we have noted with Mnouchkine’s Eumenides.


Costumes form a unique sign system of especial complexity since they are decoded by the audience on a number of simultaneous levels: they are put into action by the performers who impose gestures and movement on them, while at the same time they are three-dimensional aspects of art and must be read in the wider context of space, set, and lighting. The contextualization of all the aspects of design can radically alter how a costume is used and read. When a white costume is lit by a red light, for example, then it becomes red; when a black robe is worn against a black background, the wearer all but disappears.

Besides these complexities, costume designers have an additional responsibility because costumes do not simply form part of the overall visual system, but they also have to reflect the status and individuality of different characters. The costume designer and the director must conceptualize not just the look of each individual costume, but also take special notice of how the collective costumes work as visual signifiers in each changing moment of the performance. In Living Theatre Productions’ Andromache, for example, the predominant colours for the costumes were shades of red, orange, brown and gold. The colours gave a unity to the chorus and to several of the main protagonists. The costumes for the characters of Andromache and Hermione, however, were allowed to stand apart: the Spartan Hermione was dressed in several layers of brightly coloured purple, blue and green silks to emphasize her wealth and vanity, while the Trojan Andromache, played by a black actress, was dressed in a simple black sleeveless gown (see figure 3). Not only did the blackness of her costume provide a sharp simplicity to Hermione’s ostentatious Orientalist costume, but it also marked her out as a loner who was alien to her red-orange-gold-brown surroundings. Andromache’s black skin and black costume emphasized her foreignness.

To begin the costuming process, the director has to determine the importance of costumes in the hierarchy of visual systems within a given production: how much weight and significance will the costumes carry? The director might decide to dress all the characters in basic black costumes if the desire is to let the script’s words and the actors’ physicality carry forward the characterizations and the plot; alternatively, a director can rely heavily on costumes to provide a layered series of signifiers. When Brook wanted to emphasize the poetry and language of his production of Seneca’s Oedipus at the Old Vic, he dressed his cast in black jumpers and trousers and simple black dresses (DB ref. no. 190). At the other end of the scale is Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides in which the detailed costumes added something very special to the production’s visualization. The integral importance of costume in a production is very much at the root of Le Théâtre du Soleil’s design and production theory, as Mnouchkine propounds to her actors:

"Finish your costumes well. They can be your friends. They are your enemies if they are badly made, if they don’t hold together."

It is generally noted that Mnouchkine

"has a special taste for costumes. She likes them to be lively, rich, exact, finished."

The director and costume designer must determine which of the following kinds of information they want to communicate to the audience through the costumes (many concerns, it can be demonstrated, are shared by the set designer too.

Like the set, costume can locate the historical period in which the director has opted to place the play. Interestingly, directors and costume designers seem increasingly disinclined to place their productions in the ancient Greek world; commenting on the production process of Les Atrides, Monouchkine maintains that,

"I didn’t want to consult documents on ancient Greece because I was afraid of slipping into the old clichés of the Greek vases, the togas (sic), the draping."

Jocelyn Herbert recollects that for the National Theatre production of the Oresteia,

"Peter [Hall] wanted the cast to wear clothes based on Greek costumes but which didn’t look too Greek."

For Barton’s The Greeks, Napier describes his costumes as,

"starting off as in indefinitely Homeric but became curiously modern as the cycle progresses. That is not affectation, it is what the plays seem to dictate. . . . Pylades . . . looks like the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat . . . I see Orestes, Electra and Pylades almost as the Baader Meinhof gang when, sentenced to death, they come storming into the palace at Mycenae. "Andromache" . . . is very Monty Python. . . So where appropriate, the costumes go wacky, with lots of cocktail skirts."

Costumes also stress the geographic locations of the play. Any kind of regional costume, for example, can indicate that a character originates from a location outside the setting of the main action. In Mitchell’s "Daughter’s of Darkness" (the second half of the RNT’s Oresteia), Orestes and Pylades dressed in clichéd Sicilian-type gangster suits (complete with tick drooping mustachios) to express their (supposed) Phokian nationality. Lampito, the Spartan, is frequently dressed in a different (usually somewhat ‘butch’) costume from her Athenian sisters in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

One of the chief functions of the costume is to reflect a character’s personality; this can either be reflected in a naturalistic approach to an individual character’s taste in dress, or be a more symbolic reflection of character. An Oxford Playhouse production of Iphigenia at Aulis, for example, dressed the young princess in a short while cotton dress and delicate white veil, which stressed her marriagability and her innocence (it reminded one both of a wedding dress and a young girl’s confirmation dress). Her mother, Clytemnestra, was costumed like a grand operatic diva in a green satin gown (DB ref. no. 966). Actors of Dionysus’ Grave Gifts stereotyped Clytemnestra’s personality by dressing her in a skimpy, sexy red velveteen dress that revealed ample amounts of flesh; in contrast, the Clytemnestra of Mitchell’s Oresteia was elegantly but modestly (not to say ironically) dressed in a late 1940’s Dior-style white summer dress printed with bright red poppies. A picture of feminine respectability, the costume was intended to conceal the queen’s ambitious personality and passionate, man-like, ruthless drive. In Barton’s The Greeks, the vain self-centred Helen was dressed for her Egyptian sojourn in nothing more than a bright yellow towel, suntan lotion, and a pair of sunglasses. This simplest kind of ‘costume’ eloquently conveyed Helen’s narcissism and indolence and placed the story squarely in the present day. Helen’s towel, sun-cream and shades also highlighted her socio-economic status. Poverty and wealth, or feigned poverty and wealth, can be effectively captured in costume. Accessories, like jewellery, makeup and hairstyles sometimes make all the difference.

A costume designer should also attempt to convey any shifting emotions of the character: in Cholë Productions’ Persians, for example, Atossa was first costumed in a bright, ornate robe which she later set aside in favour of mourning black as news of the Persian defeat reached Susa (DB ref. No. 909).

Costumes also give information about the season of the year and the weather conditions in which the play is set, and help indicate the time of day. Such details can be expressed through the designer’s choice of weight, decoration and cut of the fabric and the layers of clothing worn by a character. Katie Mitchell’s The Home Guard had a summer feel about it, and to endorse this, Clytemnestra was costumed in a summer frock – a garden-party type of dress – set off with white gloves and white stiletto shoes. Paul Atkins’ Lysistrata, as noted above, set the action during the course of a day: beginning early in the morning, the Athenian women appeared on stage, appropriately enough, in pyjamas; by the ‘afternoon’ they were in skimpy summer frocks, but towards the close of the play they reappeared in slinky evening dresses. The transitions in time were echoed in the lighting design too.

Costume should also convey a character’s profession or occupation. Aristophanes’s sausage-seller should look conspicuously different from a military general or an effete poet. Costume should also help both actor and audience by alluding to a character’s age: A character like Iphigeneia should look noticeably younger than her mother Clytemnestra, and this can be achieved through a combination of costume and make-up.

Costume can also emphasize the dramatic polarity or similarities of femininity and masculinity. The gendered aspects of a production can be effectively enhanced by costume: theatre babel’s Electra, for example, depicted the Argive princess in a heavy greatcoat and army boots (an image utilized in many contemporary productions of the Electra story). It is a look which stresses Electra’s removal from the normal ‘gendered’ constructions of society. She is an unmarried virgin who, through her choice of masculine military clothing, clearly has no aspirations to marry. The same production saw her sister dressed in a young girl’s frock, plastic jewellery, sandals and ankle socks. This emphasized Chrysosthemis’s dilemma: she is a young woman reaching sexual maturity but unnaturally forced to lead the life of a virgin schoolgirl until her elder sister marries. To create this impasse, the costume designer cleverly dressed the mature actress in clothing far too young for her character.

Above and beyond the practical considerations of depicting character and helping create a time and a place, costume also augments pageantry and spectacle. Monouchkine has skilfully demonstrated this important and invigorating aspect of modern performance and one that clearly has direct links with the original productions of tragedy in Athens where, we know, spectacle was of great importance.

After settling on a style and a purpose for the costumes, the designer must explore fabric choices for each costume as well as for the production as a whole. Different sorts of fabrics serve as signifiers for different states: coarse fabrics are suitable to express poverty and barbarism; shiny and smooth fabrics point to wealth, royalty or sexiness. Other costume choices have to be made, involving details such as headdresses, wigs, jewellery, and makeup. All of these important elements have to be drawn together harmoniously for the costume to work and have dramatic effect.

An important consideration for the costuming of Greek drama is whether or not to employ masks as part of the costume. For many people, masks are synonymous with Greek drama, although in actuality, there are very few modern productions that utilize this ancient aspect of costume. An exception is made by Chloë Productions, a London based theatre company specializing in Greek drama and theatre-in-education, who routinely opt to use masks. The company tends to employ half-masks, as opposed to full-face masks, although the masks themselves usually incorporate woollen wigs, which make for some elaborate ancient hairstyles and complement the (mainly) ancient style costumes worn by the performers.

Peter Hall’s Oresteia famously used full-face masks for all of its cast members (in both speaking and silent roles). Designed by Jocelyn Herbert, the creation of the masks occurred over a protracted time period. She recalls,

"to start with we made some abstract and some more real, and the actors were given them to try. We discovered that we could make shapes which looked good in clay but, by the time we’d cast them and made moulds and then the masks themselves, they sometimes didn’t work at all. . . We tried various materials and we would have loved to have used leather, but it would have taken too long to make as many masks as were needed . . . and in the end we used four layers of muslin so the masks were light and porous. The National made the hair, which was usually black or dyed silk or cotton cord except for the Furies, for which we used dyed string. . . . One of the problems was that each character had to have an open mouth and that is such an expressive feature. . . The masks for the old men of Argos were originally going to be more abstract, using a wonderful African mask as a base, but I realized that that wouldn’t work and that they needed to be more naturalistic. . . . If you have a chorus of old men even if they are not speaking all at the same lines they are in effect saying the same thing; the essence of their characters is that they are old . . . If I had sixteen different male masks it would have been very confusing but by making them similar I could enhance the telling of the story by strengthening the feeling of age. . . Somehow, although the Old Men of Argos were all in the same mask, they each looked slightly different."

True full-face masks, as used in the Greek theatre, force the actor to disregard his own visage and to concentrate his movements upon his body; there is no need for facial movement behind a mask; instead that energy is redirected to other parts of the body. Full masks are also utilized in some forms of Oriental theatre (like Noh and Balinese and Thai dance-drama), but it is predominantly a make-up ‘mask’ that is worn by the Oriental performer: in addition to Kathakali, Japanese Kabuki and the Peking Opera use elaborate make-up masks. Mnouchkine has used Japanese Noh masks in her Shakespeare Cycle, but she also displays a dependency on Oriental style make-up. Her production of Les Atrides avoided the use of masks, despite their appropriateness for an Orientalist production; instead she opted for heavy Kathakali-style make-up. Like Greek masks, Kathakali make-up is highly conventional and symbolic: the audience knows that, say, a character in vivid green make-up is good and heroic, just as it knows that a type in black make-up is evil and destructive. Although Mnouchkine rejects the idea that these Kathakali-inspired creations were based on Greek masks ("violent make-up" is how she describes them), she recognized that there were distinct mask-elements in this formalized make-up. An interview in a 1993 publication entitled Le Corps en jeu has her stating that:

"The actors were helped by make-up/masks: I insisted on them being masked, but I did not want opaque masks that would have concealed their faces. From the first day of rehearsals, they practiced Kathakali make-up, which both amplifies their expressions and supports their performance. It is well known that all Théâtre du Soleil actors have learnt to work with masks."

Costume as a changeable entity

Costumes play an important part in contemporary staging of Greek drama, becoming the "actor’s second skin" that Tairov spoke of during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Costume in contemporary theatre is a paradox – it has multiple functions and goes beyond mimetism and signalling. A ‘good’ costume reinterprets the entire performance through its shifts in meaning. As a production shifts and changes and develops throughout the course of its run, so the use of costumes develops too. The audience of Mitchell’s Phoenician Women at Stratford’s Other Place saw a different set of costumes to those subsequently seen by audiences at London’s Pit. During its transfer period and re-rehearsal, Mitchell changed the look of the production in several subtle ways which went (apparently) unnoticed by the critics. The production file in the RSC archives testifies to the design changes: written in longhand, the Stage Manager’s notes for the revival rehearsal on 3rd June 1996 reads,

WARDROBE. When breakdown coats?

  1. There will be a new coat for everyone, each one being slightly different in colour or cut.
  2. Possible earrings or toe-rings.
  3. All costumes need to look sea-stained.
  4. The Theban costumes will be made of silk.
  5. ETOCLES’ (sic) (Sean Murray) armour will now be metal (from Henry VI).
  6. Creon’s costume will be less military with a swirly coat and no green waistband. The coat (or double) will be used to wrap Menoceus’ (sic) body.
  7. Teiesias’ (sic) costume will be more ragged with little feathers sewn on a smaller gold crown.
  8. Mante (Lise Stevenson) will have a poorer looking veil.


Cut body-Painting.

  1. Everyone’s hair will now be tied back.
  2. Everyone generally will look paler & ill-looking.
  3. The 2 messengers (Sean Murray & Dermot Kerrigan) need to be much muddier.

For 4th June, the rehearsal notes read,


  1. Nose-rings are to be tried in addition to toe-rings (but not earrings).


  1. The tattoos may be cut.
  2. Everyone (except Lucy Whybrow) should have dust/sea salt in their hair.

Examination of the production photographs and the costume sketches for the two productions demonstrates that the design revisions were carried out for The Pit revival. This is not an unusual theatrical practice; it demonstrates that design is a changing and adapting entity, a creative expression that is as much liable to change during the extended run of a production as is an actor’s performance.

Summary: how to use set and costume design

The visual sign systems used by contemporary directors of ancient Greek drama produce a wide range of meanings. Choices such as whether or not to use simple or elaborate scenery and costumes, dark or bright colours, a large or small theatre space, a lit or unlit audience, affect the meanings of the production and audience reception. Set and costumes are individual visual elements that come together to create a ‘design’. The director’s task is to orchestrate the separate stands of the visual system into one harmonious whole and to gel it with other performance aspects such as acting, music, and dance. Audiences are then asked to receive, read and understand the visual dimension of the performance as a key language component of the theatrical discourse.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
April 2001


[1] Although some may await entry. Database (DB id) references are provided wherever possible, but are only cited at the first occurrence of a production.

[2] See the companion essay to this study, "Understanding theatre space."

[3]R. Foreman, Unbalancing Acts. New York, 1992. 147.

[4] M. Foucault, Les mots et les choses. Paris, 1966. 44.

[5] That is not to say that this always leads to a Gesamtkunstwerk (‘Total Theatre’). For this concept see, most famously, R. Wagner, L'œuvre d'art de l'avenir. Paris, 1850 and Opéra et Drame. Paris, 1852. See, more recently, H. Szeeman, ed., Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk. Frankfurt, 1983.

[6]Contrast, for example, the design approaches and considerations of DB ref. no. 1115 (Theatre Cryptic’s Electra, designed by Matt Jason) with DB ref. no. 232 (University of Utah’s The Bakkhai, designed by Gage Williams (set) and Brenda van der Wiel (costumes)).

[7] That is not to say, of course, that all members of the same audience are equally aware of the component parts of the design, or other staging elements (music, movement, etc) that make up a performance. Some are only aware of a ‘complete picture’ and do not realize that the picture is created out of separate, sometimes disparate, components.

[8] Observer Colour Magazine. 3rd February, 1980.

[9] For the work of these designers see T.J. Mikotowicz, Theatrical designers. An international biographical dictionary. Greenwood Press, London. 1992.

[10] The play was staged in London in August/September 2000 and was designed by myself. The decision not to disguise the architecture of the theatre space was made primarily for budgetary considerations. By adding gilding to the imposing doorways, however, the visual impact of the space was maximized.

[11]The New York Times. 4th December 1998.

[12] The Times. 18th August 1993.

[13] From a review by Sallie Goetsch on the Didaskalia web site.

[14] S.Goetsch on the Didaskalia web site.

[15] In contrast to say, Shakespeare who, despite writing for an open air theatre, puts an enormous amount of dramatic attention on issues of time, especially the hours of darkness.