Archive for October, 2011

A few days ago, I wrote a post about Shakespearean Halloween costumes and that got me thinking, what about other plays that provide us with interesting, colorful characters that would be a great addition to any fancy dress party.

To pull this off, you need to go with famous characters who are easy to identify by their dress or accessories. Most characters form Commedia dell’arte with their distinctive masks would be perfect. But I would avoid obscure plays or generic-looking characters.

Columbine / Harliquina 

Columbine (lit. ‘little dove’) also know as Colombine, Arlecchina or Harliquina. Coy, clever and cunning, Columbina is one of the zanni, the servants, from Commedia dell’arte.  She is usually a maidservant and a confidante of the  innamorata as well as Harliquin’s mistress. She tends to wear a ragged and patched-up dress as befits a servant. Sometimes she wears a variation of Harlequin’s motley.

A dress with a diamond pattern is not always easy to come by (though you might want to try your luck at few second hand shops), but it is possible to improvise with the help of a store-bought ‘sexy’ costume or by modifying a Harlequin costume. You can also get some fun ideas from the guys over at Etsy – here, here and here.


Mephistopheles is a demon in Goethe’s two-part tragedy, Faust. Over time, his name became a generic term for ‘devil’, even though, originally, he was just one of the demons who served the Lord of Darkness.

This costume is just a variation on the popular Halloween devil costume. But why come to a party as a boring, generic devil, when you an be this very fun character? Kudos, if you decide to wear the headdress with the feathers and the ear-holes, but I would go for a ‘Medieval/Renaissance’ costume with a shirt or doublet, tights, a cape, horns attached to the forehead and some devilish makeup.








Tartuffe, from Molière’s Tartuffe, or the Impostor, is an evil and conniving hypocrite who uses religion to dupe those around him and mask his true nature. This was a  very controversial play when it came out mostly because of its subject matter – religion and hypocrisy, though today it is considered one of the greatest works of Molière and western dramaturgy in general.

This can be done with a  store-bought priest costume or  a simple black robe with an addition of a giant cross. Remember, everything about this character is over the top. To make it clear that this is not just a generic priest, give him a wig and a white ruffled cravat.



Medea is a barbarian protagonist of an ancient Greek tragedy, Medea, by Euripides. She  finds herself in a precarious situation when her husband Jason decides to abandon her and marry a Corinthian princess. Medea takes revenge by killing Jason’s intended bride with poisoned robes and then slaying her and Jason’s two children.

This could be a very easy costume if you style a makeshift  ‘Greek-like’ garment out of  some bed sheets – I would recommend dark, rich colors, since it would be hard to imagine Medea in pastels. But since she is a barbarian queen, add some exotic elements like an unusual headdress, strange jewelry and a light shawls with an interesting pattern. If you’re very hardcore, bring a blood-covered shortsword and and a baby doll, equally bloody.


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The dress worn by Vivien Leigh for the 1958 Apollo Theatre production of Duel of Angels.

Source: Victoria & Albert Museum

Made: 1958

Artist: M Berman Ltd

Materials and Techniques: Wool and mohair with lace trim and silk bands edging lower edge and back,  straw and net

In Duel of Angels, written by Jean Giraudoux and adapted by Christopher Fry, Vivien Leigh plays Paola, the wicked angel. Very befitting a fallen woman, she is decked out in red.

This dress was a Bermans recreation of the costume made by Christian Dior for the French actress Edwige Feuillère, who played the character of Paola. The dress is clearly influenced by the fashions of 1850s and 1860s, but Dior infused it with a lot of his New Look. The full skirt and the fitted bodice are reminiscent of the mid-19th century, but the pleats are very 1950s.

The shaping of the bodice is particularly interesting. Instead of using a full-length corset or Dior’s “waspie” corset, the jacket itself is corseted. Interlined seaming and light boning create an illusion of a corseted figure, while allowing an actress freedom of movement.

Description from V&A Museum:

Fully fitted front fastening jacket of carmine wool and mohair. The jacket fastens edge to edge at bust level, with false buttonholes and self-covered buttons to either side of the V neck to shoulder height; the deep V neckline is trimmed with ivory lace; to the back is a bold, collar. Full length sleeves trimmed with self covered buttons. The lower edge is boldly curved and from the sides and around the back are bold satin bands in sand and beige silk, horizontally pleated to centre back where they cascade free to floor level. Lined with cotton and boned with petersham waistband fastening at the front.

Source: Victoria & Albert Museum

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I love Halloween! It’s one of the few days of the year when I am not only allowed, but practically required, to wear an insane and awesome costume in public.

If you’re struggling to come up with a theme for your upcoming party, why not go for a Shakespeare themed Halloween? His plays have their fair share of ghosts, murderers, witches and unholy spirits. Here are a few spooky and not-so-spooky costume ideas.


Gustaf Skarsgård as Hamlet

This one is fairly easy. You can, of course, go for a classical look with a decided  Renascence-y feel to it, but you can just wear something black and walk around with a skull. Quoting “to be or not to be” is highly encouraged.

Lady Macbeth 

Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Tim Fuller

If you don’t own anything Medieval/Renaissance-y/Scottish, don’t worry. Just go for the sleepwalking scene. Think long night gown, messy hair and obsessive rubbing of one’s hands. Don’t forget to keep repeating, “Out damned spot! out, I say!”

Rome and Juliet 

YA novel by Claudia Gabel

If you’re a couple and have a twisted sense of humor, why not go as zombie/ghost/vampire Romeo and Juliet. Make sure that your Romeo looks like he died of poison – some foam around the mouth or an unnatural shade of green, and have your Juliet wear a bloody dagger wound with pride.

Viola/Cesario or Rosalind/Ganymede 

Steampunk Viola/Cesario, Maddox Theater

If you’re a girl, it’s always fun to dress like a boy. If you’re a boy, dressing up as a girl dressed up as a boy is even more fun. Put on some breaches and flirt shamelessly with party-goers of both sexes.

Titania, Oberon or Puck

Oberon, Puck, Titania, Source: Kaoime E. Malloy

Fairies are fun and  easy to do. Glitter, painted faces, a fanciful dress, some gossamer wings and, voilà, your costume is ready.

Ariel and Caliban 

Steampunk Caliban & Ariel, Source: Widgetambolia

Tempest is yet another of Shakespeare’s plays that is perfect source material for a Halloween costume. I would recommend this for a couple. And think outside the box – let the guy dress as Ariel and the girl go as Caliban.

The great bard himself    

A 9-year-old boy as the immortal bard, Source: Boing Boing

If you happen to suffer from megalomania or want to be obnoxiously meta, why not go as the man himself ? A ruffled collar, a doublet and breaches, a bald spot, a quill and some parchment and the character is complete.

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Mary Robinson - Perdita

All who happen to be in London this Autumn are extremely lucky. Tomorrow, a new exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery, which I’m very excited about.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will explore the lives and portraits of actresses from Restoration, when women were first allowed on stage, to the early 19th century. There will also be a complementary exhibition, The Actress Now, showcasing contemporary actresses such as Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren.


Here’s the description from the NPG website:

The First Actresses presents a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain.

Taking centre stage are the intriguing and notorious female performers of the period whose lives outside of the theatre ranged from royal mistresses to admired writers and businesswomen. The exhibition reveals the many ways in which these early celebrities used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and create their professional identities.

Some of the treasures that will appear at this exhibition include the Three Witches from Macbeth painting mentioned here earlier and the recently uncovered – pun very much intended –  portrait of Nell Gwyn in dishabille. There will also be a number of events, guided tours, workshops and a conference which, judging by online descriptions, should be a lot of fun.

Sadly, I won’t be able to make it to London this Autumn and so I will have to live vicariously through bloggers and online reviewers who will be attending the exhibition between 20 October and 8 January and recording the event for posterity.

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This group portrait by Daniel Gardner depicts three of the most influential political ladies of the late 18th century in the characters of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.

The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

The ladies are, from left to right, Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer. They were not only great beauties of their time, but also close friends and political allies. As political hostesses and Whig supporters, they wielded a lot more power than was common for women at the time.

While the witches in Macbeth could be seen as a supernatural force or Macbeth’s desire and ambition manifesting itself, they could also be viewed as a shadowy political force, working just out of sight, orchestrating this whole coup de force and getting the candidate of their choice into political office though artful machinations. It is quite possible that contemporaries saw something of the Weird Sisters in Viscountess Melbourne,  Duchess of Devonshire and Mrs Damer.

You can see Gardner’s The Three Witches at the National Portrait Gallery exibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (20 October 2011–8 January 2012).

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The sassy gay friend is something of a comedy cliche these days. A rom-com heroine just has to have a well-dressed gay friend whose life revolves around making her feel better about herself and giving excellent fashion tips.

Carrie and her ultimate fashion accessory, Stanford. Sex and The City

So that got me thinking, what if Shakespeare lived today and, in the spirit of the times, gave his female leads a sassy gay friend. Not the comedic heroines – there’s already plenty of sass in Will’s comedies – no, I’m talking about the tragic ladies.

It seems that somebody at Second City Network was reading my mind because, lo and behold, here he is, the Sassy Gay Friend, dishing out some sound advice to Shakespeare’s main ladies.

Things could have turned out very differently if only Juliet had had a sassy gay friend.

And poor Ophelia could have been saved if only she took advice from – who else? – A Sassy Gay Friend

What about Desdemona? There would have been no smothering  if she had only listened to her Sassy Gay Friend

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Life is a Dream is a story of self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s a story of cruelty begetting cruelty. It contemplates the notion of free will and reality of existence. You can also go into a Freudian interpretation of a son trying to kill his father, but I’d rather not.

Needless to say, SPOILERS ahead.

Life is a Dream is a play by Pedro Calderon De La Barca, commonly known as Calderon, that tells a story of a Polish prince, Segismundo, imprisoned in a tower by his father King Basilio because an oracle prophesied that the young prince will grow up to be hateful, cruel and generally unpleasant. As the king  grows old, he begins to have second thought about this whole locking-his-son-in-a-tower business. Basilio decides to test fate by restoring Segismundo to his rightful place. And if the prince turns out to be violent, he will be drugged, taken back to his tower and told that all that he saw and felt was just a dream.

Of course, when Segismundo is released after years of mental and physical abuse, the first thing he does is kill a servant, then he tries to rape a woman, injures the king’s adviser and insults the king. So back to the tower he goes, where he is  told that he dreamt the whole thing. He mourns the loss of his greatness and his freedom and contemplates how fleeting and illusory life’s pleasures can be.

In the meantime, the Polish people are rioting. They saw their rightful heir to the throne and refuse to accept Astolfo, the king’s nephew, as their king. They break Segismundo out of prison and swear allegiance to him, but he is still not sure if this is all real or just another dream. Segismundo amasses an army and defeats the king, but spears his life. Basilio is touched by his child’s generosity and can now see that oracles are not always right and Segismundo proclaims that one should always do good since all that you see around you may turn out to be just a dream.

Detail from bronze relief on a monument to Calderón in Madrid, J. Figueras, 1878

The story has an interesting subplot about a noble Muscovite lady named Rosaura (and no, that is not a typical Russian name) who comes to Poland to find the man who seduced and abandoned her. Some scholars thought that Rosaura didn’t fit the plot and was a lazy and cliched stock character. However, it is as much her story as Segismundo’s. She is the very first character we meet and the first time we see Segismundo, we see him through her eyes.

Throughout the play she constantly appears as someone she is not – just like Segismundo – first as a man, then as her rival’s lady-in-waiting named Astraea, then as an orphan of obscure birth. In the end, just like Segismundo, Rosaura regains her identity and her rightful place in society when her father acknowledges her as his daughter. The same way Segismundo is granted his princehood by the King.

Just like Segismundo, Rosaura is angry, vindictive and full of rage. She is constantly berated by other characters for these qualities, but they are simply reactions to the abuse she has expreinced at the hands of these same characters, just like Segismundo. The play deals with the issue of how abused become the abusers and how vindictiveness and cruelty are instilled in people by circumstances.

Costumes of the Polish Szlachta, 1500s

The play has three acts and  a fairy small principle cast – with only 8 main characters, and only 2 female parts.

There are very few scene changes, no complicated contraptions or devices and it can be performed with minimal scenery.

Life is a Dream lends itself to a number of interpretations and the tone can vary. It can be played as a tragedy with dark colors and brooding atmosphere. It can have a light, surreal feel to it, almost as if it was a dream, with misshapen sets and fanciful costumes. The boundaries of reality can really be pushed with this one to the point where the audience wouldn’t know if this is real or just a dream. It can be done as a historical drama with a strong emphasis on the nature of authoritarian power and government in general. Or it could be turned into a dark comedy with actors hamming it up to the nth degree.

Or it could be a combination of all these.

Life is a Dream, 2008, Galiasgar Kamal Tatar National Academic Theatre

The costumes can also be done in a number of ways. If you decide to go for a straight-up historical interpretation and look, remember that 17th century Polish nobility wore fashions that were very similar to those worn by the rest of Europe. If you want a more exotic look, you will have to borrow elements and motifs from Russian costumes.

Of course, you can use the difference in costumes to establish a difference between Muscovite (Rosaura, Astolfo, Clarin) and Polish (Basilio, Estrella, Clotaldo) characters.

Russian nobility, 17th century

Polish nobility, 17th century













But like the play itself, the costumes can also be fanciful and dream-like, invoking the surreal nature and existential themes of the text. They could  mix and match a variety of historical and modern elements. Or you could go for a simple straight-up modern look. If you’re working with a small budget, the last option could be the best one for you. Draw inspiration from present  and not-so-distant-past totalitarian regimes and dress your characters in contemporary suits and dresses.


Life is a Dream by Calderon De La Barca, trans. John Clifford. ISBN-10: 1854591886  

Galiasgar Kamal Tatar National Academic Theatre

Zur Geschichte der Kostume by Schneider Braun

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