The right fit

Although intensely avant-garde in many ways - at the moment I can't think what these are, but no doubt it will come back to me - I find I am becoming increasingly old-fashioned about theatrical costumes. I am all for designers being imaginative up to a point, but on reaching this evasive spot I insist on their stopping before they make absolute fools of themselves.

Basically I still like Shakespeare's royal characters to be dressed in rich, red velvet; or, if they are Macbeth, in lots of fur; or, if they are Julius Caesar, in a toga. These can be fancied up, of course, exaggerated even, but eminently recognizable as being of the correct period. I do not like Henry V in a frock coat or Ophelia in jeans, since such perversity seems but a desperate effort to attract the attention of a supposedly jaded public. Surely there can be no valid grounds for dressing Richard III like Fidel Castro, or making Rosalind wear Wellington boots. I know Shakespeare can survive anything: but why should he have to?

The answer may be money. Brocades, velvets, furs, armour, however simulated, are expensive these days, as is scenery, and if you can persuade an audience to believe that butter muslin tights and a cyclist's crash helmet are perfectly reasonable items of attire for the Dauphin of France, and that parallel bars and planks can easily be mistaken for the Forest of Arden, so much the better.

It is asking a lot of us. Of me, too much. I am all for imagination. But not a rioting one. And this is what I fear is taking over, not only the English stage, but the whole entertainment business. I have in mind a carnival procession that recently took place in a little country town near where I week-end. It consisted, as usual, of what we (usually appropriately) call ''floats,'' converted trucks bearing on their backs tableaux vivantsm suitable to the history and industries of the district.

I was naturally interested to discover what theme, what ''motif,'' had been chosen for the occasion, seeing that farming is the only industry in the immediate vicinity. Would there be yokels in smocks leaning on stooks of corn, or milkmaids dancing round the Maypole, or what? I asked Rosie, who was 11 at the time, and was taking part, what she was going to wear. ''A Hungarian costume ,'' she told me. ''A Hungarian costume?'' I echoed, though with difficulty, as I was all but bereft of speech. ''Why on earth a Hungarian costume?'' ''Because it fits,'' said Rosie.

From her point of view this was a reasonable answer, but from mine it was not. If performers are simply going to wear fancy dresses that happen to fit them, how are we, the public, going to unravel the messages they have for us? How can anybody dressed like a Cossack convince us that England is the dearest place on earth? Or, wearing crinolines and tricorn hats, persuade us that excellent sparking plugs are made in the locality?

My fears that expediency and economy are now far outweighing art in the entertainment business were justified when Rosie's ''float,'' drawn by a combine-harvester, rolled by. Although there were a couple of yokels in smocks and whiskers on it, and even a good-natured cow, there was also an American Indian, a Pierrot, a fairy, and a Mexican in a damp sombrero. And of course Rosie in her Hungarian dress that fitted.

It is true that the English are good at muddling through, but the confusion we now have to penetrate to get, so to speak, to the story is becoming downright ridiculous.

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