Celebrating the Messel Connection

An international story of local significance unfolded at the Beacon on Saturday 11th February in a thrilling introduction by Thomas Messel to the work of his uncle, the legendary theatre designer, Oliver Messel.  The walls were lined with his original drawings of costumes and sets which wowed his audiences, all lent to the Beacon and Rosehill Theatre by the Victoria and Albert Museum.  A video of the recent Covent Garden Ballet, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, working to the original set and costumes Messel designed, was playing in the background,  and an adventurous group of students from Workington Sixth Form College wore costumes and masks they had recreated from his work.

The prodigious energy that went into the creation of costumes and sets for films, operas, ballets and plays in the 1950s, working with dramatist like Coward, Fry and Anouilh and directors like Diaghilev,  Ebert and Pascal, was breathtaking.  Equally astonishing was the fruitfulness of his partnership with Rosehill Theatre’s founder, Sir Nicholas Sekers, designing the theatre, lining its walls with silk produced at Sekers’ Mills at Hensingham, and later incorporating silk from those mills into the costumes he designed for ballets and plays.  There was no difficulty in attracting artists like Yehudi and Hephzibar Menuhin Gervase de Payer, Emlyn Williams and Peggy Ashcroft to perform and the theatre and aristocrats and celebrities to make the journey from London to attend, “parachuted in on Sekers silk”, in the words of the great Hungarian poet, George Szirtes.

The opulence of his designs and the romance of his conceptions lost popularity in the 1960s, when the starker drama of the Angry Young Men burst onto the stage, but everyone has his season, and he was described by Peter Brook, RSC director and author of The Open Stage, as “by far the most talented designer of his generation.”

Thomas Messel’s new publication: Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design, is on sale at Rosehill Theatre and at the Beacon.

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