A lost world; a timeless, placeless, abandoned space filled with intrigue, one where you might ask yourself, ‘Am I supposed to be here?’
That’s what audiences can expect when they wander into the burlap-draped set for Henry V, which runs at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver from now until Aug. 13.
The long, billowing strips of burlap have both a history and a purpose: once destined for the recycling bin, they were rescued from a Vancouver-area coffee shop and given another life.
That history is crucial to the eerie authenticity of the set, said Vancouver-based set designer Amir Ofek.
“It just immediately added a layer that I don’t think we would have achieved if we had to fake it out of totally brand new bolts of fabric from the store,” Ofek said.
Director Lois Anderson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic follows a story within a story — the cast portrays a troupe of nine people seeking shelter from a war raging outside.
Under the security of the burlap canopy, they decide to put on Henry V.
“This is a place of gathering, a place of safety, [where] you are escaping the war outside to watch and listen to a story about a different war and the consequences of it. The offer that it makes is, choose love. Instead of war, why don’t you consider love?” Ofek said, when CBC’s North by Northwest host Margaret Gallagher visited the set.
“We are following the consequences of war on the human psyche.”
Bard on the Beach is presenting Henry V in the round, meaning the circular stage is placed in the middle of the audience. With that in mind, Ofek said he and Anderson both wanted the set to be an immersive experience.
The set is designed to blend seamlessly into the architecture of the tent in which Bard on the Beach performances famously take place, Ofek said — and that meant working with fabric on a scale that he’s never done before.
“I knew that because I am not going to work with carpenters, that I need to find the fabric equivalent of a carpenter,” Ofek said.
When the idea of burlap came up — particularly burlap from dozens of old sacks of coffee that would otherwise be recycled — Ofek knew it was the right choice.
“It needed to look like something that humans left behind. It has history. It came from, perhaps, the spareness of material.”
The humanness of those burlap sacks is part of the immersion Ofek and the rest of the crew have tried to build with Henry V. Ofek noted that when all is quiet in the set and you’re cocooned in the fabric, it feels like you’ve left the outside world behind completely.
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A soundscape will set the scene as you walk in, before the actors even take the stage.
That’s something Ofek has been chasing his whole career, he said.
He knew set design was his path very early on, after a trip to London as a young Israeli high school student, where he fell in love with the great British mega-musicals of the 1980s.
“There’s some magic about creating environments, creating illusion. And if you’re doing it right — I just remember the experience that I had as an audience member, a kid going to see those shows, and how transported I was,” he said.
“How you just go into the theatre and for two hours, you’re someplace else. And that is something that I’m interested in — creating something that convinces people enough that they feel like they took a break from life.”