From Bolshoi to Belfast

The evolving aesthetics of Russian theatre revealed at Crumlin Road Gaol

This is the exhibition that nearly didn't make it.

From Bolshoi to Belfast: The Theatre of Costume, a display of 50 outfits from the Russian Museum of Ethnography and the Bolshoi Theatre occupying B wing at Crumlin Road Gaol, was held up while the Russian owners of these valuable costumes decided whether or not the conditions in the unmodernised 19th century prison were entirely suitable.

They were – the humidifiers came up to scratch, the material was finally despatched and the show is now on show until mid-December 2014. But was it worth the ten day wait? Yes, although the presentation is slightly static, despite the piped music that accompanies the period glitz and sartorial glamour.

For example, near the start of the exhibition there are two sumptuous tutus from Swan Lake, for the character(s) Odile and Odette, white and black with delicate decoration. These pieces transport the viewer into one of the most beautiful and tragic ballets of all time, yet some film footage of dancers in action in the elaborate costumes might have added to the experience.

Bolshoi is translated as 'large' or 'grand', and the ballet costumes for ballerinas and male principals here live up to the epithets.

As you walk down the narrow prison walkway, there are some magnificently bling-y outfits on show from a Rimsky-Korsakov satirical opera, The Golden Cockerel, which was based on one of Pushkin's poems about a king duped by an astrologer and an allegedly magical cockerel.

It was also, according to Robert Heslip, culture and heritage officer with Belfast City Council – who is fortuitously present as I scan the costumes – a radical critique of the 1909 regime in Russia. Prince Afron's marvellous costume certainly bears this out: the pink trousers, or pantaloons, and the fairly outrageous designs indicate a figure of magnificence whose authority might well be questioned.

'This exhibition was something which interested us,' says Heslip. 'We said, "Ok, guys, it's going to go to the Crumlin Road Gaol", and we could hear the designers' squeals of delight down the phone. Later they asked us about conditions and I was sending photos of my humidifier down the phone. It is a rough building and wing B is an unrestored wing, but the material is fantastic and Ireland as a whole has more prisons used as museums than anywhere else.'

There is no doubt that the surroundings of Crumlin Road Gaol add a frisson to this show. Seeing some of the incredibly elaborate 19th century women's clothes beautifully installed in prison cell after prison cell underlines the constraints of the periods in which they were created.

 

For example, costume details routinely indicate a woman's marital status. In one space, an outfit of the period from the Kiev Oblast (province) shows a young woman's hair uncovered, suggesting she was unmarried, with a wreath woven in to symbolise purity. Her attractive jewellery consists of necklaces made of decorative seeds. Not too difficult to guess that symbolism.

It is important to remember how vast the Russian empire was, stretching from Mongolia to Poland and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. You can see an Eastern influence in the style of some of the costumes on display, while there are a couple of women's outfits from a territory south-east of Moscow dating from the late 19th century that raise the issue of class.

The headdresses are golden and based on the shape of a chicken's fanned tail. Rich-looking and exotic, they probably wouldn't have been worn by the poorest of citizens.

There is no question that you gain a sense of Mother Russia from browsing this exhibition, of the massive and sometimes sentimental construct that lasted into the 20th century. Here are the people, the characters, the fictional men and women who sum up this 'so vast' territory.

There is a quantity of fabric on show here – 350 metres, in fact – and it offers a way into many stories. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, for instance – the title heroine of Shostakovich's opera – appears via a costume designed by FE Federovsky for a 1980 production. The plot of the production involves a woman who falls in love with one of her husband's workers with, naturally, tragic consequences.

Shostakovich, incidentally, didn't have an easy ride either, having been denounced by the Communist Party, maybe even by Stalin himself. The outfit is what you might call very early Cath Kidston in design, highly decorative, with a silk smock and long skirt patterned with flowers and rich colours.

As that most famous of Russian playwrights, Anton Chekhov, had it: 'Everything should be first rate in a person, his face, clothes, soul and thoughts.' From the 1966 gold decorated man's military tunic (very Courrèges) from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, to the real, if rather prosperous looking, women's costumes, there is an insight here into the Russian desire to wear it well.

From Bolshoi to Belfast runs in Crumlin Road Goal until December 13, 2014.