A walk-through history of theatre

Nick Smurthwaite
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Now that museums and galleries are thankfully once again admitting visitors, Nick Smurthwaite explores some of the highlights of the V&A's Theatre & Performance galleries

 The V&A is a great starting place for materials to teach students theatre history, such as this painting of actor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807-1867) as Otello
The V&A is a great starting place for materials to teach students theatre history, such as this painting of actor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807-1867) as Otello


Of all the arts, theatre is probably least suited to the museum environment. Its USP is transience and spontaneity. It is a shared experience in the moment, not something to be peered at behind glass or pored over on the page.

None of this deterred the Victoria & Albert Museum ten years ago from setting up a special area of its mighty South Kensington edifice devoted to theatre and performance, following the process of production from the spark of an idea through to the presentation of a performance.

As things have turned out this year, perhaps any theatrical experience is better than none.

There is, I must admit, something a bit special about getting up close and personal with Joey, the life-size puppet star of War Horse, one of the biggest theatrical hits of recent years. Joey really is too big and too imposing to be classed as a puppet, requiring three people to operate it. Visitors are not allowed to have a go, but you can see the internal workings and imagine it being brought to life.

One of the most eye-catching installations is Kylie Minogue's dressing room from her 2007 Showgirl: The Homecoming Tour, reassuringly chaotic in its tangle of exotic outfits, make-up, wigs, containers, water bottles, mementoes. Anyone with a teenage daughter will view it with mixed feelings.

Equally popular – and assuredly interactive – is the dressing up area, where younger visitors are encouraged to try on various period and pantomime costumes before admiring themselves in front of a full-length mirror and taking the inevitable selfie. The costumes – along with many other exhibits – have to be rotated because of wear and tear.

Indeed, costume plays a big part in the collection, from Dame Margot Fonteyn's tutu from the 1950s to a hat representing Sydney Opera House once worn by Dame Edna Everage, and an outfit worn by Elton John decorated with bicycle parts. The collection acquired some items from Madness last year to mark their 40th anniversary, including a newspaper print suit worn by Suggs in the video for the 1986 hit ‘Waiting for the Ghost Train’. Even more curious is the special edition Tomato Ketchup bottle – one of only 150 produced by Heinz – showing Ed Sheeran's ketchup bottle tattoo. That's fame for you.

Historic artefacts

Older visitors are perhaps more likely to be intrigued by Shakespeare's First Folio, Vivien Leigh's Oscar for Gone With the Wind – a little bashed about because she used it as a door stop – and a re-creation of the original 19th century circus poster advertising ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ which inspired John Lennon to write the opening song on the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There are interactive stations where you can create your own storyboard, and have a go at poster or costume design.

For those interested in the finer points of set and theatre design, there are exquisite box models of Swan Lake, from a 1987 Royal Ballet production; a 2011 revival of Sweeney Todd; and a 1903 production of Humpty Dumpty, as well as a scale model of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the historic theatre more recently home to so many great musicals.

As well as the permanent collection, Theatre & Performance have regular temporary displays, including one currently running, dedicated to the centenary of the Royal Academy of Dance, which was postponed from earlier in the year. It looks at the history of dance training in the UK, and how the Academy became its foremost provider. Visitors are invited to try out some exercises from the RAD's syllabus at a mocked-up barre, guided by a demonstrative video.

‘For those interested in the finer points of set and theatre design, there are exquisite box models’

Forthcoming exhibition

There will be another special immersive exhibition inspired by the stage and film depictions of Alice in Wonderland, which was to have opened in June this year. Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, now opening on 27 March 2021, claims to be ‘the most comprehensive Alice exhibition ever curated,’ taking in film, theatre, ballet, fashion and fine art. Among some 300 artefacts it will feature original frames from the 1951 Disney animation, and Alice-themed sketches by Salvador Dali.

Curator Kate Bailey promises ‘a mind-bending visual experience’ as well as a startling reinterpretation of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, thanks to psychedelic digital projections. She says, ‘Alice encourages us all to question, to learn, to explore and to dream, discovering why she is an endless source of inspiration for some of the world's most creative minds.’

From an educational viewpoint, the galleries provide plenty of opportunity to flag up the myriad specialist skills involved in putting on entertainment of all kinds – set design, lighting and sound, costume-making, prop-making, wig-making, puppet-making, playwriting, producing, directing, stage management, production management and publicity.

Teachers’ packs for the galleries are available to download at:



And general information is available from:

www.vam.ac.uk/collections/theatre-performance where you can also find a ‘Story of Theatre’ told through items in the collection. Students who cannot get to the now re-opened galleries in person can still gain from exploring bits of the collection online.