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Obituary: Desmond Heeley

Desmond Heeley Desmond Heeley in 1995

Moving with eloquent ease between theatre, ballet and opera, Desmond Heeley was one of the most distinctive designers of his generation. His approach owed much to youthful ambitions to be a window dresser, harboured while studying display at art school in West Bromwich. His costumes were invariably conceived with a meticulous concern for context and character, his sets framing the world and themes of the play with shop-window directness.

Early involvement in amateur dramatics quickly led to changed ambitions and a new career in the professional theatre. His work with Birmingham Repertory Theatre brought him to the attention of Peter Brook, who engaged him in 1955 to design costumes for the London premiere of Anouilh’s The Lark at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

In Stratford the same year, he created costumes for Brook’s historic revival of Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier in the title role and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, red ribbons memorably flowing from her wounds in a vivid borrowing from Noh Theatre. It was also seen at the Stoll (now Peacock) Theatre in 1957 after an extensive European tour.

In what he later referred to as his “formative years” with the fledging Royal Shakespeare Company, Heeley was to contribute designs to a diverse array of plays including Hamlet and Toad of Toad Hall.

He ventured into ballet in 1956, designing a quartet of pieces choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, including the premiere of Solitaire, for Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The following year he designed costumes for John Cranko’s setting of Benjamin Britten’s first dance score, The Prince of the Pagodas, for the company.

That same year, Heeley worked at the Ontario Stratford Festival for the first time, designing a Hamlet that starred Christopher Plummer. In all, Heeley designed more than 40 productions there until his 2009 swansong, The Importance of Being Earnest, the costumes for which secured him his third Tony award in 2011 following its Broadway transfer.

More than 40 years earlier, he had made Broadway history when, in 1968, he became the first designer simultaneously to win Tony awards in both set and costume categories with the National Theatre’s transfer of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

On his return home, Heeley worked for the first time with the nascent National Theatre, then still at the Old Vic, contributing set and costume designs for Michael Hordern’s Macbeth in 1958 and a well-received revival of The Importance of Being Earnest the following year.

During Brook’s first season in charge of the RSC in 1960, Heeley designed The Merchant of Venice with Peter O’Toole as Shylock. The same season also included his first opera designs, for I Puritani at the Glyndebourne Festival Theatre and La Traviata for Sadler’s Wells Opera.

The rest of the decade saw one success after another: costumes for the RSC’s The Devils and Romeo and Juliet at the Aldwych in 1961; The Tempest in Ontario (1962); the colossal edifice of God – “a fantastic setting of breathtaking proportions” (The Stage) – in Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue (Haymarket, 1964); and the Japanese-influenced Yugen for choreographer Robert Helpmann and the Australian Ballet (Royal Opera House, 1965).

In later years, Heeley designed an American tour of Camelot starring Richard Burton (1980) and revisited the show in Stratford, Ontario in 1997. His work was seen more recently in London when English National Ballet revived Ronald Hynd’s near-30-year-old staging of Coppelia at the London Coliseum in 2014.

Desmond Heeley was born on June 1, 1931 and died on June 10, aged 85.

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