Budding, blooming, and bursting open

The Grillo Theatre in Essen is presenting its German adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, ‘Bunbury – Ernst ist das Leben’, in a stage set of giant, movable flowers, built in the theatre’s own workshops. Colourful costumes and the ingenious use of a trap echo the play’s humour and emphasize the protagonists’ comical characters.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

The premiere of ‘Bunbury – Ernst ist das Leben’ at the Grillo Theatre in Essen was scheduled for 6 December; due to the pandemic, there were no more showings after the final rehearsal on 3 December in front of a small audience. The pun in the play’s title is spun out by the two leading female characters, Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax, who are convinced they could only marry men named Ernest. But being earnest is precisely what does not come easily to the two leading male characters John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.


For the Essen production, freelance stage and costume designer Aurel Lenfert designed a variety of flowers. The three-dimensional, larger-than-life floral constructions stand and lie on the stage or are suspended over it on point hoists. 

The three-act play has two settings: Algernon’s apartment and John’s country residence. The interior of the first setting is minimalist. The defining element is an elegant leather sofa. Handcrafted in the theatre’s workshops, the sofa has a piece of red fabric on the back and clamps securing it to the floor. “People can disappear through this sofa! There are mechanisms in there that make the bottom of the sofa drop down,” explains Gehrke. While the set is being changed between the first and second acts, the sofa is moved to the side and Merriman, the lady butler, appears. She enters via the trap. 
The other main feature is a grand piano on which Algernon plays and sings along to various hit numbers. All the piano’s inner workings have been removed and the surface given a matt finish to prevent reflections. The piano music that sounds is pre-recorded, as is the instrumental accompaniment to the well-known ballads that the performers sing. Their singing is amplified with microphones, in contrast to their spoken words. 
A chessboard-tiled floor makes up the ground in both scenes. It consists of 1m² and 2m² medium-density fibreboards, on each of which several tiles are roughly painted.

The garden setting is symbolized by a group of white wooden chairs plus table and a pool – a yellow paddling pool 3m across, to be precise. Five flowerpots of about 1.30m in diameter carrying over 2-m-high hyacinths also stand on the stage. Their white blossoms are made of painted plastic bottles from which the bases have been removed; the buds are laminated and painted sponge balls. The dark green wooden leaves are inserted in metal grids inside the pots. Each of the pots weighs between 350kg and 400kg. The performers climb on the pots, walk around in them, and hide behind the plants. Although the weight of the pots guarantees a certain stability, care still needs to be taken that no actions performed cause them to tip over. 
Two of the pots are mounted on remote-controlled wagons. The performers sit behind on the pots, and are pushed forward and twice round, all the while moving towards the ramp of the stage. Kleinen explains: “There are electric wagons underneath those two pots, controlled from the catwalk by two stage technicians.”
When the various misunderstandings between the couples have been cleared up and they all start to sing “Love is in the air”, blossoms appear on the stage from all sides, even from the trap mentioned above. An opulent bouquet of white and yellow blooms is lowered from the flies. The interconnected branches of about 3cm in diameter are made of curved metal. Gehrke explains: “To ensure it isn’t too heavy, the inside is only metal wire. This was inserted in a garden hose for the required thickness. And that is covered in fabric, coated in paper, and painted.”
Each of the blossoms of about 50cm in diameter, made of cardboard and paper and coated in wood glue, is a unique adaptation of four basic templates. There are hibiscus flowers and orchids, for instance, which appear true to life but about 25 or 33 times larger. The romance of the scene ends abruptly when a man-size poinsettia bud standing on the stage suddenly bursts open – thanks to a construction designed by staff at the metalworking workshop.
The metalworkers constructed the frames for the large flowers. These were then covered in stretchy jersey before being painted and partly sprinkled with glitter. Prop-makers created the stamen out of plastics and pieces of laminated foam panels. The petals of the large flowers are fixed together in metal hubs like lightbulb holders, so that the flowers can be suspended or placed on the floor.     
The pool is a wooden rib construction lined with foil and with a radiused Styrodur upper rim. One hour before curtain-up, it is filled with water heated to between 45° and 50°. To minimize the risk of transmitting the Corona virus, bubble bath is added: Soap destroys the surface of the viruses, Lüdiger explains. 
The costumes, designed by Marie-Luise Lichtenthal, humorously reflect the antics of the protagonists. Algernon appears in a sense conventionally dressed, often in a suit, albeit a green one combined with a pink ruffled shirt. In another scene, he wears a kilt with a matching waistcoat, jacket, and a pink bum bag with furry bobbles. Cecily and Gwendolen appear girly, elegant, and garish all at the same time, in minidresses and pencil skirts, with colourful hats, enormous bows, and lots of glitter. Each of their outfits is scrupulously colour-coordinated, down to the last accessory. 

Anti-virus regulations are of course observed during this production, too. Every performer has their own box in which to keep their props and accessories and which only they handle. After the show, all the contents are cleaned and put back in the box. 
For the staff of the technical departments, the reduced working hours and contact restrictions were the biggest challenge. The workshops planned the stage set, as Gehrke says, back in January 2020. “We presumed we would be able to work as fast as usual, with all the necessary staff.” But due to the pandemic-required cuts in working hours, it took twelve weeks instead of six to make the stage set. On the artistic side, the challenge was getting the individual components to work together: “We needed to get all these little things coordinated into a complete picture.” And it worked – though at the time of going to press, the rescheduled date of the premiere is still to be announced.


BTR Ausgabe 1 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 130
von Juliane Schmidt-Sodingen

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