The Isango Ensemble are one of the most talented and creative theatre companies to come out of South Africa. Taking classic stories and transposing them into a South African township setting. This month saw them arrive at London’s Hackney Empire to deliver a short run of the La Boheme, Aesops Fables and the Ragged Trouser Philanthropists.
With all that to prepare for you can imagine how busy the production team has been, however we managed to pin down Gail Behr, Isango’s resident costume designer and ask her a few questions about the costumes for the performances.
The costumes you have created for the Ensembles London run are very creative what was the inspiration behind their development?
Like all of our director Mark Dornford May’s productions, his La Boheme is a meld of purist Puccini meets Africa which makes for a pretty free palette. I am personally slightly wearied of the stereotypical take of Africa
[beads, leather skirts, gum boots and traditional prints etc] and Mark and I decided upon “Victorian Pantsula with a spoonful of steroids” /Township meets Dickens. We are also endlessly intrigued by the Herero tribe of Namibia who have a wonderful personalized take on Victorian dress that they still wear today. Prints worn with prints with a deliciously personalized flavour … and so we came up with an organic alchemy of costume that the actors too could become involved with from the outset. ” tighter , longer , smaller , bigger and please may I add my favourite brooch to the lapel ” was the dialogue between ourselves and the players which was a interesting and delightful way to work .
It’s good to hear that the actors had an input into the creation of the pieces, how did the collaboration with the artists and the director help you to achieve the concept outcome?
We had fairly limited time and almost no precedent but I think we all knew what the final look and feel should be. Mark Dornford May screaming “cutaways” as we attempted to create tailed jackets out of stretch jersey knit and a generic melody quickly developed, bustle back print skirts for our girls with cream buttoned shirts with lace trimmed tails. Skinny pantsula type pants for our chaps with the tails of their jackets being edged in wire to allow for “the steroid” part of the narrative. Pauline Malefane [our Mimi] is so beautiful that one could send her out in a dressing gown and she would look remarkable. [clearly we did not send her out in a dressing gown but instead dressed her in a simple pleated antique lace trimmed black smock with a black back frilled skirt for layering and a felt grey heart pinned to her sleeve with a blanket pin ]. All the costumes are lightly sprinkled with wit!
And it would seem more than a hint of Victoriana! Are the costumes locally sourced and made?
Yes 100% locally sourced and made.
I know it has been customary with a few African theatre companies to use recycled materials in their costumes, why have you used the materials you have and are there any elements of reclaimed or upcycled fabrics in the finished pieces?
We work on a damningly tight budget and this has a strangely inspirational offshoot. We work with what we have and have severe financial limitation on what we source. Luckily I am a clothing designer and generally have a store room filled to the brim with roll ends and reject textiles. Dagogo (costume supervisor) became extremely resourceful in finding buttons and lace and required oddities in various second hand stores and market stalls and somehow this all came together as a cacophony of integrated costume
La Boheme is currently playing at Hackney Empire until June 1st visits our event page here for more information and to book tickets.