A Showcase of 10 Compelling Theatre Posters

Shakespeare, Marlowe, Stoppard or Beckett; while playwrights have up to three hours and several hundred pages to get their point across, it is the task of the theatre poster designer to communicate the essence of a play within one single image.

The first challenge lies in the sheer scale of genres and styles of drama available. From musical theatre to big-budget West End hits and from intimate fringe productions to immersive theatre experiences, the diversity and variety is enough to intimidate even the most experienced artist. Secondly is the need to translate a mood, a theme and a message. This is particularly important when promoting a piece of theatre which has appeared on stage many times before. Faced with the challenge of producing artwork for regularly staged plays such as Hamlet, Three Sisters or Waiting for Godot, it‘s the designer’s job to revisit the text, and working in close collaboration with the show’s director, re-discover the story for fresh telling.

Then the style of the production must be considered. Trends for telling classic tales in contemporary dress, cross-gender casting or non-linear narrative make it impossible to take the style of a genre for granted. And as audience figures fall and ticket prices increase, the task of the designer is harder than ever before – this is especially true after this year’s severe arts funding cuts, forcing theatre companies to work harder than ever before to attract audiences.

Here we take a look at a selection of some of the most famous, enduring and effective theatre posters of the past 50 years, including hits from well known names plus one or two less prominent productions. You might have seen them in the streets way back after the theatres got some poster printing done.

Othello

This poster, designed by Cactus Communications for The Denver Theatre Company’s 2009 staging of Othello, perfectly demonstrates the racial tensions at the heart of the play and the bloodshed that ensues through its simple colour palette of red, white and black.

Volpone

Designed for the National Theatre’s 1977 production of Volpone, starring Paul Schofield, Ben Kingsley and John Gieldgud, this bold poster uses clashing red and green to symbolise the motivations of greed and lust that drive Volpone, literally translated as the ‘sly fox.’

A Flea in Her Ear

Simple, striking and humorous; take one look at this poster for The Old Vic’s 2010 production of the Feydeau classic, and there can be no doubt that this is a farcical comedy of mistaken identities, double-meaning and fast-paced action.

Richard III

The promotional poster for Sam Mendes’ 2011 production of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey in the title role, is an excellent example of the way in which poster artwork can be considered a microcosm of a play itself. From the penetrating, unemotional gaze of the protagonist to the cool white typography, it effectively summarises the plays’ themes of greed, hatred and cold-blooded ambition.

Waiting for Godot

Like the lead characters, Vladimir and Estragon, this poster features the most iconic characters. At turns devastatingly bleak and laugh-out-loud amusing, the artwork is as simple as the premise of a play itself – a play in which “nothing happens” yet reveals the very essence of what it means to exist.

Equus

Peter Shaffer’s compelling 1973 play Equus focuses on the themes of religion, brutality and sacrifice. This bold, iconic poster takes the god-head figure of the horse, the object of the young Alan Strang’s obsession, and immortalizes it in iconic black and white to striking effect.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Stylish, sexy and powerful; Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 Broadway play starred a young Marlon Brando before he went on to define the role of Stanley Kowalski on the silver screen. This poster takes the story’s setting in the French quarter of New Orleans as its stylistic starting-point; an influence which can be clearly felt in the use of illustration, typography and colour palette.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

As famous as the songs themselves, this is the definitive poster for the smash-hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. From the inclusion of the coat hanger, the draped-fabric inspired typography and the rainbow colour scheme, it condenses the essence of the show into one unforgettable piece of promotional design.

Three Sisters

Filter Theatre Company’s retelling of the Chekhov classic Three Sisters was unconventional, non-linear and imaginative. Their revolutionary approach to story-telling can be felt in this poster, which features several bottles of vodka, iconic representations of the sisters and a distinctively anarchic, punk-inspired edge.

It Felt Like a Kiss

As part of the 2010 Manchester International Festival, Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like a Kiss was an immersive and interactive roller-coaster of a show which plunged small audience groups into a nightmare world of corruption and decay in early 1960s America. This photographic poster represents the euphoria of the era and hints at some of the nightmarish events in store, both during the performance and later in this decade of change.

Julie writes on behalf of Clickinks she works in design and product development. In her spare time Julie loves going to the theatre and learning how to play the piano.

5 Comments
  1. Reply Jenn September 8, 2011 at 3:49 AM

    Julie, thanks so much for the great collection. I enjoyed reading your descriptions as much as I enjoyed looking at the works!

  2. Reply Adriana September 9, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Nice idea for an article :) I like the Othello poster and Waiting for Godot :)

  3. Reply Fred - web designer September 13, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    There is some incredible work here which is quite humbling for a lowly web designer like me. The Equus poster is a work of art in itself. It’s great to see such talent continuing through the ages.

  4. Reply Brian Christopher November 9, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    i agree with adriana – othello and godot are my favorites as well. to me, they represent two very different approaches to poster design. othello’s minimalist approach cleverly conveys the nature of the play through symbols and color, but it’s emotionally void. godot, on the other hand, establishes a stronger emotional connection through color, texture, and most importantly, photos of the actors. both are successful in their own right. of course, hollywood always uses actor photos since that’s what sells tickets. our theatre posters vary in approach – some are conceptual while others are character driven.

  5. Reply Brian November 9, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    btw, i love you’re line…”a play in which ‘nothing happens’ yet reveals the very essence of what it means to exist.” so many movies are like that these days. for some reason, the only one i can think of right now is Napoleon Dynamite.

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