Interview: A Design For Life – Production Designer Isla Shaw

Isla Shaw Explains Her New Set Design For The Curve

Costume and Set Designer Isla Shaw returns to the Curve for their new production of The Importance of Being Earnest. SIXTYNINE degrees’ Ben Walker caught up with her to find out how she became involved in design and how visually, she is bringing the play to a modern audience.

So, how did you first get into Costume and Set Design?

I was actually looking at doing nursing believe it or not, but I decided to follow the artistic route and undergo a two-year costume construction course in Melbourne. I loved it, but I knew I really wanted to do design so I came over to England and studied at Wimbledon School of Art. I then went on to win the Linbury Prize and here I am 20 years later.

When you first begin working on a new production, what is your approach to turning the words on the page into visual assets?

I tend to read the play around six times, pulling out all the different aspects that we need to focus on. With The Importance of Being Earnest we wanted to create an Art Nouveau look with oriental elements, so I did some research and then put together the first model. Nikolai, the director, and I then would go back and forth, going through about ten different versions of the model before actually getting to the final thing.

How is the play being brought to a modern audience?

I think what is really exciting is that we’re not taking it out of the period, we’re not changing the text, we’re not specifically making it about the now, but we’re using what Wilde says through the text to us, to tell the story. The amazing thing about
Wilde’s words is that they are still relevant today.

How does that reflect in the design and costumes?

We’re mixing a very period space with very contemporary furniture and the shapes of the costumes have got an Edwardian shape to them. But at the same time they are very hedonistic Chelsea so you can relate to how the play was relevant then and is still relevant now. We have also incorporated mirrors in the production, which reflects the play itself looking at society.

So from which perspective will the audience see through; the reflections of the mirrors or the actual actors?

I think that the audience will be very much a part of it, which is something that we were really interested in; it’s obviously going to be different wherever you’re sitting. What’s interesting is within that world it’s quite important to use colours in the costumes and be quite bold about the furniture and the aesthetics within that space.

So what can audiences expect from this new production of Oscar Wilde’s play?

I think people will get it in different ways, some will come and see the play for what it is and some people will hopefully be drawn in because of how relevant it is to today’s society. I hope that some people will come away and see the undertones of what we’ve talked about but I think in a way that it doesn’t really matter, some people will still get both things and some people will just enjoy it hopefully.

The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Birmingham Rep until the 24th September and at Curve in Leicester, 6th to the 29th October. For tickets visit or