Set designers Marloes and Wikke about Orphée aux Enfers

Designers Marloes van der Hoek and Wikke van Houwelingen are used to making their set designs as a duo. Ideas for this arise during museum visits, image research and brainstorming sessions, in their studio and at the kitchen table. This time it turned out differently; together with an entire artistic team, the basis for Orphée aux Enfers was laid while talking, at the table with director Benjamin Prins in Paris.

Wikke: ‘Normally we read the script, talk to the director and – the two of us – get inspired, so we come up with ideas through associations.’

Marloes: ‘But now, in Paris, we mostly talked; about Orphée aux Enfers, about what the work means, about the composer. Benjamin is a huge Offenbach connoisseur so it was very inspiring to hear from him. The composer was an innovator and inspirer in his time, socially critical as well. So then you want to know: how do we now relate to what he did? It is very interesting to see how you can take Offenbach’s thought to the present.’

Wikke: ‘For example, Benjamin wanted to keep the pastoral classic at the beginning. Then it is our job to find out how we can build on that fact, how we can make it more our own and how we can break it open.’

Marloes: ‘Yes, because we don’t want to reproduce Offenbach exactly. I found it very stimulating and challenging to research: can we give that classic starting point a twist so that it also feels modern?’

Wikke: ‘I found that very inspiring! If you’re stuck in a kind of corset (just like Eurydice), how are you going to break out of that in your design? We hope that the public will be misled: that they think they see a traditional decor at the beginning, but at the end they walk out surprised. Because it’s not that classic, (laughing) we also call it our ultra-neoclassicism.’

Wikke clarifies by describing what their design looks like: ‘The decor consists of 2D plates printed with prints, the colors have been made brighter and we have incorporated even more humour. So the initial decor looks classic, but if you look closely, you can already see and feel that breakout is announcing…’

Marloes: ‘It is also just like the old theater in terms of performance; with all those changes, panels that come out and go to the side, very dynamic. But it’s kind of a parody of the classic. That is exactly what Offenbach himself does all the time, which is why we also feel free to play with it.” She continues: “That kind of play seems like a superficial play with shapes, but you can only do that because there is indeed a story behind it. There are many connections between when Offenbach wrote this and now; for example, that decadence, the rise of capitalism, they were already concerned about that at the time. That social criticism is just as good in this.’

Wikke: ‘Of course, the exact message never comes across literally, but I do hope that people will feel the process of transformation. Just as the characters undergo a transformation, we transform the stage from beautiful and conventional to – ultimately – playful and free.’

Interview: Kyra Bertram