Shakespeare Alive

22. Evie Gurney on her Process and Costume Design

August 30, 2022 Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Episode 22
22. Evie Gurney on her Process and Costume Design
Shakespeare Alive
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Shakespeare Alive
22. Evie Gurney on her Process and Costume Design
Aug 30, 2022 Episode 22
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Award-winning costume designer, Evie Gurney, speaks to Anjna about her costumes for the National Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra and the 2022 production of Much Ado About Nothing, as well as her process and aspirations for costume design in the theatre.

Support the Show.

We ask our guests and listeners to share one modern-day item that they think should be included in an imagined Shakespeare museum of the future. What do you think of their choices, and what would you choose? Let us know at

Show Notes Transcript

Award-winning costume designer, Evie Gurney, speaks to Anjna about her costumes for the National Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra and the 2022 production of Much Ado About Nothing, as well as her process and aspirations for costume design in the theatre.

Support the Show.

We ask our guests and listeners to share one modern-day item that they think should be included in an imagined Shakespeare museum of the future. What do you think of their choices, and what would you choose? Let us know at

Anjna Chouhan (00:00):

Welcome to Shakespeare Alive, a podcast from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

              Welcome to Shakespeare Alive. My name's Anjna and my guest for this episode is the costume designer, Evie Gurney, whose career has taken her from the fashion houses, Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen straight to the National Theatre where she won best designer at the Stage Debut Awards in 2019 for her costuming of Simon Godwin's Antony and Cleopatra which starred Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the eponymous roles.

              I should add that conversations about the production centred on two things: the live snake in the final act and Cleopatra's now famous yellow dress which was inspired by the popular icon Beyoncé. Since then, Evie's designed for the Almeida, the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, The Old Vic, and most recently she's returned to The National Theatre for their 2022 production of Much Ado About Nothing which reunites her with director Simon Godwin.

              Hello, Evie Gurney, welcome to Shakespeare Alive. It's absolutely wonderful to have you with us and you're joining us from Milan today?

Evie Gurney (01:16):

That's right, yeah. Thanks so much for inviting me and I live in Milan. I do most of my work in London, but I live here in Milan.

Anjna Chouhan (01:22):

Well, that is a wonderful way to live your life Evie, between Milan and London. Sounds really glamorous.

Evie Gurney (01:30):

It's very fashion.

Anjna Chouhan (01:32):

Totally fashion, which is really on topic for our conversation today.

Evie Gurney (01:36):


Anjna Chouhan (01:37):

As you know, I always like to ask I guests on Shakespeare Alive, how they started off with Shakespeare. So what was your route to Shakespeare, Evie?

Evie Gurney (01:45):

The earliest thing I can remember is from primary school and I think I was probably around eight or nine and we had to write out the Witches' speech: 'Double, double toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble', and I remember it really clearly because they cut out a cauldron shape on black sugar paper so we had these black cauldrons and I think they gave us silver pens, which was obviously very exciting to an eight year old. And we had to write out the poem in our best handwriting and then illustrate what had gone into the cauldron, you know, 'fillet of a fenny snake' and 'eye of newt' and that was my first experience of Shakespearian language and the imagery in the language, converting what was on the page, the words on the page into a visual image and the fact that I still remember it now. I mean, it must have impressed upon me very much just how rich the language was.

              And my second exposure to it, I went to the Anna Scher Theatre which was a children's drama club after school and she used to shout out random quotes from Shakespeare without any context and when I think about that now, I think, oh, there's certain parts of Shakespearian language that are just embedded in British culture as certain phrases or ideas.

Anjna Chouhan (03:08):

Is that sort of early encounter with Macbeth and turning the language into imagery, is that something that still sits with you today?

Evie Gurney (03:16):

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that very first experience with Shakespeare is absolutely what I do now as a costume designer, when I start a new show, the first thing I do is I'll go through the script really quite thoroughly, looking for those images, looking for those themes, those repetitions and kind of asking myself what's the language bringing us in the inward eye in that imaginative eye? And Shakespearian language and Shakespearian texts are so rich in imagery, there's often lots of animals and body parts and omens and kind of emblems from the natural world, which would've had real meaning and depth to the audience of that time so part of what I'm trying to do is tune into that imagery and think about how I can translate that for the audience in a subtle way and sometimes in a not so subtle way.

              Sometimes you really want to emphasise a certain element of something that's being spoken about in the text. And then I'll speak with the director and the director will often have a really strong point of view about what the play is about or what the play is about in this moment and I think that's always a really useful question when approaching anything, any kind of creative endeavour, which is why are we doing this and why are we doing this now? What makes this version of Shakespeare that we are doing in 2022 different from the one we might have done in the year 2000 or in 1980? What elements are we trying to bring to the story? What elements are we trying to draw out of the story?

              Then I'll speak with the set designer and the set designer starts work a long time before I do and so they will start creating a world and I will kind of immerse myself in the set design as well, to understand where these characters are living and also to think about things like colours, but after the set designer, I think the next stage is talking to the actors because sometimes the actors have a very strong point of view about what their character is, what their character does, what their character feels and again, that's one of the beautiful things about Shakespeare is that we have these great speeches which tell us about the rich, internal lives and thoughts of those characters, which is such great inspiration for thinking about how will they dress themselves in this moment that they're in, how will they dress themselves in terms of their status and how will they dress themselves in terms of their kind of psychological condition?

Anjna Chouhan (05:46):

We'll get to specifics in a minute, Evie; but is designing for a Shakespeare production different to any other show? For instance, you came off finishing the Bartlett Play The 47th at The Old Vic in London, did you approach that any differently to the way in which you approached Antony and Cleopatra or the way in which you will approach Much Ado About Nothing, which you're about to launch into at The National Theatre in London?

Evie Gurney (06:11):

Yeah, I think The 47th was really unique because all of the characters of people with a really, really strong image in the world, so they're people where everybody has a really clear idea what those people look like, Donald Trump, Kamela Harris, Ivanka Trump, Joe Biden, they're people who have been super exposed on the global stage and for me, I think part of it was looking actually at what those people wear, but also addressing the idea that people have in their head of what Donald Trump looks like and being really careful not to turn him into a cartoon character, because one of the things I discovered looking at endless pictures of Donald Trump is that he's already wearing a costume. He's already created this kind of costume for himself, which is a costume of power and success and so you have to really fine tune it so it feels like when the actor steps on stage, that that's a real person wearing real clothes rather than a character wearing a costume because if you don't do that, it creates a difficulty for the audience to really suspend their disbelief and really just allow themselves to enjoy the play.

Anjna Chouhan (07:25):

That's immediately a huge difference isn't it to characters from Shakespeare because they're not living with us in contemporary life, they're not actual living, breathing human beings, walking the planet the same time that we are?

Evie Gurney (07:38):

One of the things that I enjoy so much about Shakespeare is that his characters are archetypes. So they represent something. There's something about Shakespeare in our culture and culture creates storytelling and then storytelling creates culture and so even though these people are archetypes, they are drawn from an experience of real life and I think, if I'm doing my job properly, then I'm reintroducing that experience of real life into the characters so that when they are on stage, they don't feel like stiff, stock characters and they don't feel like cartoon characters and that, even though we know that they're archetypes, we experience the kind of humanity of them as real people who are walking and talking and living and breathing in this world.

              And I think, again, that's one of the things that Shakespeare does so beautifully in taking us from the high to the low in terms of kind of great meaning along with the kind of really base humanity at the same time and he manages to move between those points consistently and so I think in costume, we want to make both the grand gestures and also add those small human details.

Anjna Chouhan (08:54):

So what you've just described is so fascinating because it encapsulates so perfectly those two characters that you did dress: Antony and Cleopatra, these great epic figures who are also deeply flawed and deeply human.

Evie Gurney (09:06):


Anjna Chouhan (09:07):

Perhaps in particular, Antony. So can you tell us a little bit about working on that production at the National?

Evie Gurney (09:14):

I think one of the challenges with Antony and Cleopatra is that they are such iconic characters and so what felt important was to ask myself who is iconic now? And how do we want to encourage the audience to think about powerful people in the public eye, powerful people and image making? And again, one of the things that I, well, I like to draw a parallel with Shakespearian era and our current time is how much people rely on image as a form of communication.

              They relied on imagery because so many people were illiterate and people knew how to read images and that people knew how to read status and particularly status through dress, you know Henry VIII had these sumptuary laws, which defined who could wear what and certain people could wear certain furs and fabrics and colours and that there was a whole language of status, which was communicated through clothes.

              And that's being repeated in this current moment, not through lack of literacy, but through the two combined forces, one of globalisation, which is that people speak different languages and so imagery has become a quick way of communicating, but secondly, through digital media and digital imagery and people are using imagery to communicate in a really particular way. And in terms of those two powerful figures, Antony and Cleopatra, there was this kind of theme in the play of what they were actually doing and what their public image was, that kind of conflict between the public and the private.

              And I think equally that's something which is really, really pertinent to audiences today and that's something that I wanted to explore. There's a journey that each character goes through in the narrative of the play and Antony starts the play in Egypt and he's just living a life of leisure and luxury and we had him in a pair of wraparound trousers, that real feeling of looseness and freedom and it was very sensual as well. There was an idea that Egypt was a very sensual, permissive place versus Rome, which was a very strict and proper place, but it was interesting that the colour palette for Rome was really quite cold.

              There was a lot of marble, and metal and Rome, for me, was a very kind of blue colour palette, which is also the colour of uniforms whereas Egypt was a lot richer and I think then when you saw characters were out of place, people who then moved from one world to the other stood out so when a guy in a navy suit turns up in Cleopatra's palace, where there's a swimming pool in the middle of it, he really looks out of place and vice versa, when the Egyptians go to Rome, they all look a little bit relaxed and casual.

              And so we see him first in this Egyptian mode, and then we see him suiting up and going back to Rome to have these very serious conversations with people and then later when he realizes that things aren't going his way, that it becomes this very militaristic power, authority. And so that happens over the course of the first act that we see him letting go of one part of his identity and stepping into another.

Anjna Chouhan (12:46):

But with Sophie Okonedo who was playing Cleopatra, how did you evoke that difference between the public and the private? We don't really see Cleopatra alone very much, do we? How did that work in communicating the privacy of her private space in the way that she dresses and the way she presents herself?

Evie Gurney (13:06):

That's a really interesting question because one of the things in my first research that came up was that women of that status don't actually have a private life. They're constantly surrounded by servants, advisors, admiring members of the public, she would've been trained, I suppose, not to let her guard down and to always maintain a certain appearance in order to maintain her status.

              Women in the public eye are not, they're not allowed to go out looking scruffy without lipstick on otherwise the tabloids get a hold of it and they say that they're having a nervous breakdown and that image is plastered everywhere and I think Cleopatra will have known that, or at least in my version of it, she would've known that she absolutely cannot appear to be vulnerable or weak in any way. And one of the themes for me in the second half of the play was about her trying to control the narrative and using her image in order to do that.

Anjna Chouhan (14:09):

How did that manifest for you Evie in the way you designed those costumes then, and the way that she's, you know, she can't let this guard down. I'm thinking back to the sort of colours and the fabrics were quite soft still, weren't they and there was this elegance to her as well as a structure?

Evie Gurney (14:27):

So Cleopatra was an icon and still is an icon and I think one of the things that I wanted to ensure was that she was a knowing icon, that she was a self-created icon, that she kind of really understood that it was her life's purpose to be this icon and not only in terms of leadership, but also her rule was kind of spiritual in nature. She was a spiritual icon in the sense that Egyptians believed that their Kings and Queens were gods. And she was the manifestation of a goddess on earth.

              And reading through the text, there was lots of things which struck me about Cleopatra being very elemental. So precious metals, gold and jewels, like ivory and bone, which felt a little bit more elemental in a different way, in a more human way, things which were elemental, which belonged to nature. So the wheat of Egypt, the winds in the sails of her boats, I had this idea that she could somehow command the elements and command the weather and that was part of her godlike power.

              And so I tried to weave that into the costume design with the colour palette so the colour palette moved from ivory through saffron to gold and things that felt quite precious. She had to be feminine, she was using her femininity as part of her iconography. She wasn't co-opting masculine elements. She was really, really focusing on things which were feminine and that did lead to a certain softness and a certain elegance and when I was thinking about her as an icon, and I was thinking about this is a very kind of elongated shape, a soft but elongated shape as though she went from the earth to the stars. That was her, that was kind of her energetic plane as it were whereas Antony's energetic plane was from east to west, east to west, much more chaotic.

              It's really hard to explain what I do because a lot of it doesn't have a verbal language. It's a language of imagery and it's also a language of intuition, I think, there are certain things that you just feel. For me, as pretentious as it sounds, that is also a part of my process because to understand what a character might be thinking or doing helps me understand how might they choose to dress themselves in this moment? What might they choose to do? Might they choose to appear soft? Or might they choose to wear something to protect themselves?

              My background, my first entry point into fashion was working in retail and I still remember there's a magic when you put somebody in the right outfit, when you put a woman in her dream dress or a man in his great suit, there's some kind of alchemy that happens where they just light up and it's the same thing that happens in the costume process. When you put an actor into the right costume for their character, there's some little spark and you just know that you've got the right thing, but it's not always easy to explain.

Anjna Chouhan (17:37):

We're just going to pause for a quick break.

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              You're listening to Shakespeare Alive with me, Anjna and I'm talking to the costume designer, Evie Gurney. Are there any misconceptions about costumes in the theatre that perhaps you'd like to help people understand it differently?

Evie Gurney (18:28):

I think for me as a designer, it's really important to remember that what I do is purely decorative and it's only there to add to people's enjoyment and I'm really loathe to give people explanations or a set of instructions on how to enjoy themselves at the theatre. And it really helps me to remember that Shakespeare was popular entertainment in its day. It was the Netflix series of its day. Everyone went to see it and everyone went to talk about it and you didn't need a set of instructions to understand it. You could just go and enjoy the storytelling.

              And for me as a costume designer, that's what I want. I want people if they like the costumes, great. If they don't like the costumes, that's fine too and I don't think me explaining anything is going make people enjoy it even more and I think people should be really free to do that at the theatre and particularly with Shakespeare, you know, that we risk putting it on a pedestal as something special but I think there are so many different entry points to enjoy theatre.

              Some people enjoy the aesthetics of it. Some people really enjoy the language. Some people enjoy the emotion of life performance, and I think whatever people enjoy, they should just be allowed to enjoy that and not be forced to kind of think about things that they may not particularly care about and if people don't notice the costumes, that's fine by me. My job is to add a layer of enjoyment, but not to ask people to pay attention to the costumes. The costume should almost become invisible. If a costume really works, it should just look like it belonged to the actor and it's absolutely effortless.

Anjna Chouhan (20:13):

Well, it must be quite tricky to create that balance between having, like you say, a seamless wardrobe for this character and who they are, and also having it not stand out, but also not disappear completely and I'm thinking in particular about coming back to Cleopatra, the yellow dress, because there was a lot of conversation about the yellow dress and how did you feel about that conversation and the comparisons that were made to Beyonce's dress and the kind of popular culture references there?

Evie Gurney (20:45):

Yeah, that Beyoncé dress was a really deliberate and conscious choice. We decided to do it and it worked really well and in a way, being a costume designer, you are part of a bigger creative team of the director of the set designers and ultimately the actors. I chose that Beyoncé dress, I knew that there would be a lot of a [inaudible 00:21:08] students coming to see it and in that moment in time, Beyoncé had put the Lemonade album out and everyone was speculating on whether or not Jay-Z was cheating on her and she made this video with the yellow dress smashing up the cars. And I thought that's a great moment of coincidence when Cleopatra finds out that Antony's got married in Rome and just to kind of let those ideas merge together and maybe inspire the audience to think about this in a different way and also really conscious that lots of people who came to see that show will have no idea who Beyonce is.

              And so it's still a beautiful dress and a glamorous dress and a fun dress regardless of whether or not who Beyoncé is but if you do know who Beyoncé is, what does that add to how we are thinking about Cleopatra and how we're thinking about the play overall and women in leadership and women in the public eye.

              You know, you can put an actor on stage in a bin bag, if they're a great actor, they can do incredible things with Shakespeare's text and so they don't necessarily need me so if I'm there, I have to be adding something. And if I am adding something, I need to be adding it at this kind of standard, the standard of the text that's been written and the actors that are performing it and the set designer who's designed it and the director that's directing it in the theatre that it's in.

              So I absolutely want to create the best possible work that I can in order to give that as a gift to the audience, it's an offer that I'm making to the audience. You've given me two hours of your time, and I'm going to give you, in that two hours, the best of my work. Yeah, I hope the audiences see that and appreciate that.

Anjna Chouhan (22:55):

You're about to start rehearsing Much Ado About Nothing with Simon Godwin, again for The National.

Evie Gurney (23:00):


Anjna Chouhan (23:00):

And by the time this episode goes live, that production will be well underway. What are your thoughts about this process that you're about to start? What are you most excited about working on when it comes to Much Ado About Nothing?

Evie Gurney (23:13):

Much Ado About Nothing is an interesting play that a big part of the action rests on a costume party, a masked ball where people don't recognise each other, which is something that actually doesn't really happen in our modern age. We all know who we are in our Halloween costumes so it's not like suddenly people who've known each other for years suddenly don't recognize each other because they've got a small little cats eye mask on. So there's a big challenge in that for me in how do I make that feel believable? How do we reconcile some of the darker elements with the lighter elements of the romantic comedy and how do we kind of blend that in with the time and place that we've set it in.

              And Simon Godwin has very cleverly chosen the 1930s as the setting and so I've got some really, really rich research to draw on. There was two great fashion designers of that era who were both women who were Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli: a French woman and an Italian woman. You've got the fashion of women wearing trousers, so women stepping into what were traditionally male garments and I found that quite interesting in terms of the idea of the soldiers coming back from war and finding women inhabiting male places and that being quite difficult for them and that creating a bit of friction and the '30s artistically was the moment of surrealism, which is fascinating for me as a costume designer, because it allows for some exaggeration, it allows for some illusion, there was a lot of Trompe-l'oeil, trick of the eye, work didn't do fashion.

              And Elsa Schiaparelli very famously collaborated with the artist Salvador Dali so there's lots of real beautiful imagery for me to draw on and particularly the way surrealism brought those elements of the subconscious, the contrast between dark and light, innocence and experience, brought those things to the surface and a kind of slightly dreamlike quality for all of it, which is really, really useful for the play and for this idea that people kind of get somehow lost, confused, transformed, wrong footed within the context of the play. And there's a process of transformation that occurs and surrealism provides a really useful palette in order to explore some of that.

Anjna Chouhan (25:55):

Our listeners are going to be looking forward to watching it if they can and presumably there'll be a live screening of it as well?

Evie Gurney (26:02):

Yes, it's going to be on NT Live so it will be broadcast in cinemas throughout the UK and internationally and then I think it's going to be part of NT at Home so at a certain point, you'll be able to watch it streaming from the comfort of your own sofa. One of the joys of broadcasting this in cinema is that you do those camera angles do allow for a lot more detail of the costumes to be seen.

Anjna Chouhan (26:29):

So do you have a favourite theatre costume of all time, Evie? Whether it's one that you've designed or seen elsewhere and do you know what, I think we can include, let's include film in that. I know that widens out the conversation quite dramatically.

Evie Gurney (26:44):

There's so much that I enjoy for different reasons. There's a couple of productions at The National Theatre from the last few years which were really exceptional. One of them was Follies, which was designed by Vicki Mortimer, another play called Absolute Hell. Nicky Gillibrand did the costumes for that and that was set in Soho in the 1960s. The current production of Cabaret that's in the West End at the moment, that's just theatre! Film opens up a whole new arena, Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter was the costume designer for that and she won an Oscar for it and she absolutely should have had two Oscars for it.

Anjna Chouhan (27:21):

If you could costume any of Shakespeare's plays, what would be your top two?

Evie Gurney (27:26):

I think Titus Andronicus is number one. I have a kind of dark fascination with that play. There's some really, really troubling elements to it, which I think are a real challenge, particularly the violence of it. I think generally I am quite drawn to violence because I think my number two would probably be Macbeth. I think Lady Macbeth is one of the most fascinating Shakespearean characters and I'd love to work with an actress on that woman who's kind of vilified for being too ambitious, but I also think there's a feminist aspect of it, which is going back to when these plays were written and women's status and what kind of power they had.

              And I guess I would also include Goneril and Regan in Lear in this, that they are often played as the kind of wicked step sister archetype, but actually asking what has happened to these women up until this point? What power have they had? What power have they had taken away? What choices have had they had taken away? Which then leads them to make the choices and take the actions that they're taking now.

              It doesn't always have enough depth that they are this somehow hysterical in the Freudian sense, these frustrated sexual beings who maybe haven't become mothers or have had some sexual trauma and that's how we interpret their motivation but I think the stories are much richer and much more complex and I think that is something that can be explored in dress.

Anjna Chouhan (29:10):

If you could choose anything from our collection, what might it be? What would you like to make your very own and why?

Evie Gurney (29:18):

In the collection there's a gorgeous embroidered cap from the early 17th century. I'm absolutely fascinated by this object partly because it's unfinished. Who was making this? Why were they making it? Why weren't they able to finish it? What happened? Was the person making it for themselves? Were they making it for a gift? Were they making it for a celebration? And it's a piece of embroidered cloth with animals, flowers, hearts, all of these very emblematic things, which lead me to believe that it might have been for a wedding or a festival or some kind of other celebratory event.

              There's kind of fruits and flowers on it and I find the active needle work really emotional. It's quite a slow hand process that somebody would've been sitting there making this by hand, thinking about when they were going to wear it or thinking about when the person they were making it for was going to wear it.

              It also really reminds me, there's a portrait of Elizabeth I in Hardwick Hall where she's wearing this, she's standing on a map of the world and she's wearing this extraordinary gown which is embroidered all over with animals and emblems. It made me think, I wonder if the person who was making this had seen that gown or had they seen that portrait, or had they heard about that portrait and were trying to capture a piece of it for themselves? Or was that just something that was fashionable at the time? And so there's so much story in this tiny, tiny piece of cloth, so I don't actually want it for myself. I'm really glad that it's in the museum and I'm really glad that it's being preserved and taken care of for people like me and for the people yet to discover it.

Anjna Chouhan (31:10):

If you could deposit anything in our collection, what would it be?

Evie Gurney (31:15):

I'm not sure I feel confident to advise the curators of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on what they should be collecting, but I think it would be examples of how does Shakespeare pop up in elements of popular culture? And I think one of the things I find really interesting is how some of those stories are somehow chewed up and spat back by the tabloid press.

              So one of the things that I found really interesting about Macbeth and Macbeth in the present moment, the production on Broadway at the moment has Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga as the leads and I haven't seen the production, but I saw one of the press photographs. And my first thought when I saw it was, oh, it's Harry and Meghan, it's our brave and beloved prince being led astray by his ambitious, greedy, manipulative wife and that's a story that has been written by Shakespeare but overlaid into contemporary culture in a way that we only need to be fed a little bit of the story to go, well, this isn't going to end well because we know how it ends in Shakespeare and I'm not sure how you would collect that.

Anjna Chouhan (32:37):

Well, I think it sounds like a fascinating project Evie, and I'm sure there's a really good research project in there. Evie, thank you so much for joining us on Shakespeare Alive. It's been such a pleasure to talk to you and hear all your wonderful stories and your wonderful thoughts and I hope that all of the planning and prep and work on Much Ado goes as swimmingly as it can possibly go and I'm sure our listeners join me in being excited to see that production.

Evie Gurney (33:07):

Yeah, I hope some of your listeners can make it and I hope they enjoy it and if not, I hope that they are finding ways to enjoy Shakespeare in whatever has meaning and value for them.

Anjna Chouhan (33:19):

Thank you for listening to this episode of Shakespeare Alive. Do join Paul next week when he is joined by award-winning actor, Adrian Lester. If you'd like to find out more about the houses, collections, research and education activity at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, then please head over to our website,