Costume designer Rien Bekkers
by Hana Bobkova – theatre critica
It is a rare occurrence when the fantasy of a costume designer triumphs so convincingly that it receives a spontaneous applause. It happened during the play “Zinbegoocheling” (Comic Illusion) where the luxuriant, dazzling costumes seemed to tell the story by themselves. Here the illusion was caught in its essence: a theatrical illusion of a grand and glorious spectacle that carried the spectators along. The carefully composed pieces of art -players in their costumes, wigs, hats, jewellery and shoes – referred in their style to the 17th century fashion, but this visual display was illuminated by ironic and humoristic winks (to vanities and eccentric extravagances) and carried the distinguishing marks of the artistic signature of costume designer Rien Bekkers.
His passion for beauty is not only expressed as an enchantment by a plethora of shapes, but also as an ode to simplicity, elegance and style. Design by Rien Bekkers allow for special, sensory and visual experiences. They resist a drab, superficial culture of passing impressions where the rule of quickly changing images never allows for continuation and rarely harks back to tradition. A trail of beauty, drawn by the stage-setting of more than 150 productions in all stage arts -as aside from theatre, opera and ballet are represented and he also made a sidestep to the movies-offers confrontations with the past but carries a clear recognisable stamp.
Historical fashion and arts
Bekkers is inspired by several different historic styles that he reflects and interprets in his own way, in other words never simply copies. As much as the clothing of a certain period functions as a starting point for the costume design, his costumes are not historically correct.
There are plenty of examples in Bekkers’ oeuvre to be found where the inspiration was given a powerful impulse by both historical fashion as well as by the artistic expressions of the period in question. In “Klaagliederen” (lamentations of Jeremiah), bases on five songs from the Old Testament, the scenery and costumes gave praise to the paintings of Saenredam and Rembrandt. The scenery of Klaagliederen came to be because director Gerardjan Rijnders uttered the words “black rain”. The costumes, monumental yet sober, because designed in one style, gave the space of upward reaching verticals an extra meaning to the whole: the sobriety was attached to a soul by excess and the terrestrial.
The clothing of the actors in Elizabethan costumes made Hamlet seem like a historic play. For the appearance of Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, the image of Elisabeth the first was used as a model, but just as with Claudius, the king, the stylish historic costumes provided more than just information about the status. The body of the queen was as it were squeezed between a large collar dotted with pearls-a symbol of decayed beauty-and a colossal hoop at hip height, and she walked with difficulty on the cothurns; the king was very insecure on his high heels. For Electra, a play dating from around 400BC, and especially for the costume of Klytaimnestra, one of three excavated ritual statues from the Minoic culture (1570BC) served as example.
A suit of armour in mother of pearl
Also for the fabrics and materials historic data is the inspiration; the fact the emperor Nero loved mother of pearl, let to him wearing a suit of armour made out of this material in the play Britannicus. Together with the scenery of reflecting aluminium (also a design by Bekkers) and the cold colour range of the costumes it created a chilly atmosphere. For the costume of Agripina, mother of Nero, a special fabric was used; a gauze bandage, “a copy of the fabrics found in the pyramids: rough in texture and alive”, according to the designer.
The daring combinations of colours, orange, silver grey, next to a monochomatic range in the base colour, played an essential part in creating emotional tensions where confict and relational dynamics can develop. Where usually the cut allows for a distinction in social class, Bekkers also uses a play of lines and variations in fabrics and colours, for instance to show the passage of time (Zinsbegoocheling).
The colour red, with its myriad meanings of love, power, wealth, lust, blood and royalty, delivered an unmatched collection of connotations (King Lear). The shades of purple, pinkish, coral, bordeaux and scarlet worn by the actors gave a strong suggestion to the emotional and psychological layers of the play. The dress-up completely in black and gold (La Traviata, except in the second part) helped to lift the melodrama to a higher plan full of aesthetic beauty and symbolism of an approaching death. The unobtrusive grey of linen showed the simplicity in the costumes of the common man, whilst the members of the temporal and ecclesiastical powers were draped in shiny silver brocade (Het leven van Galileo Galilei)(The live of Galileo Galilei).
With Bekkers costumes always have a strong relationship with the scenery. Remarkable is the sculptural quality given to the costumes, not only by the weight of the fabrics used (often with patterns woven into them), but also because the designer works in close participation with the director and the light designer. For instance the scenery of Penthesilea (design by Jan Klatter)-a neoclassical library with stories-was reminiscent of Palladio’s famous Teatro Olimpico, and the dresses in empire style referred to the statues on the tympani of Greek temples thanks to their pleats and lighting. This way the designer undertakes animated searches for cultures in different eras and diverse locations on earth. As it were, the discoveries and experiences come together in one performance and in the total oeuvre of the designer. For instance the Eastern cut and the African use of beads the inspiration for wide coats and ruffs in Richard III. In Dark Lady the costume designs were haute-couture-like, but also carried the quality of visual piece of art. Bekkers mixed all eras, cultures and styles together and his creations turned out to be renaissancistic, exotic, modernistic, recognisable and utterly original at the same time. This post-modern mix of styles and cultures can be labelled as a completely original, very personal style with a number of common characteristics.
Aesthetic refinement goes hand in hand with the creation of prerequisites for the actors and their body language. Costumes can be designed in such a way that they are close to the skin of the actors: “a solidly built male torso in Britannicus is outlined, the golden coloured coat of mail of Pyrrhus in Andromache waves with every breath”. The body gains something tangible through this. Bekkers said about this: “It is important to me that through the costume the body becomes perceptible”. However, this is just one possibility, as there are many designs where as it were the body of the actors is hidden behind a large amount of fabric; in that case the emphasis shifts to the rhetoric of the declamation and the gesture (Andromache). There are also costumes that allow for complete freedom of movement in harmony with the character of the part. A costume emphasises or masks the physique but can also lead to a metamorphosis under the eyes of the spectators: when the cardinal in a ritual was dressed as pope and the five articles of clothing, the gloves, ring and tiara gave him a exterior brilliance, his humanity disappeared at the same time. (Het leven van Galileo Galilei)
Extravagant hats and headdresses
The attention for both the large and the small human history, for the monumental whole and the detail is typical for Bekkers as well. In details a meaning is never overshadowed by non-functional or banal ornaments. While the men were dressed in black costumes, they wore different coloured hair bands to show their family connections (Richard III). Details are striking and chosen with great attention. In fact some performances are unthinkable without Bekkers’ hats, headdresses and footwear. The inexhaustible fantasy of the designer ranges from boots to elegant little shoes with ribbons, from colossal hats and extreme headdresses to helmet hats with a flap. The oversized hat and headdresses as combinations of hair, feathers and jewellery remain unforgettable (Zinsbegoocheling), but the landscapes of simple black berets, flat or round cardinal’s hats, capuchins, and pointy, Klu Klux Klan-like caps as well (Het leven van Galileo Galilei, Don Carlo).
From the start of his carrier in the second half of the seventies at the Ro Theater in Rotterdam, as assistant costume designer in the artistic team of the Ro Theater (Franz Marijnen, Jean Marie Fievez, Dagmar Shauberger), Rien Bekkers has worked with a large number of directors, of which only a few can be named here: Gerardjan Rijnders, Ger Thijs, Johan Doesburg, Karst Woudstra, Albert Lubbers, Hans Croiset, Antoine Uitdehaag, Peter de Baan, Lidwien Roothaan, Monique Wagemakers, Peter te Nuyl, Aram Adriaanse, as well as choreographer Krisztina de Chatel.
He has also made a number of foreign productions, but the emphasis was on activities in The Netherlands. De development of Rien Bekkers run thus via different lines. And although he once proclaimed not to see himself as an autonomous artist but more as a designer of an idea that is created based on the play and in close corporation with the director, scenery and light designers and the actors, he also had got production on his name where the artists involved each had a completely equal part through their media, and operated autonomous (Dark Lady).
The most fascinating about Rien Bekkers’ work is the tension and the surprise between the past, his arrangement and harmony and often baffling unsettlement that he manages to create time after time. Again and again he is underway towards the new, the unknown and the unprecedented, whilst he keeps on being seduced by the beauty and enchanted by the imagination. And this is true in equal parts for the designer as well as his spectator.