Desmond Heeley, who has died aged 85, was an award-winning theatre designer who worked with some of the greatest names in theatre, opera and ballet on both sides of the Atlantic, though he was best known for his work with the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Heeley began his career in Britain as a 16-year-old apprentice in the props department of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, where his gift for creating costumes was noticed by Peter Brook, who in 1955 commissioned him to design the costumes for a production of Anouilh’s The Lark in London.
Later the same year, as Brook’s assistant at Stratford, Heeley designed both costumes and sets for Brook’s famous production of Titus Andronicus, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
He went on in the 1960s to design original productions for Joe Orton’s Loot; Robert Bolt’s Gentle Jack, starring Dame Edith Evans, and Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue, starring Ralph Richardson.
He was also much sought after by ballet and opera companies, working with the Ballet Rambert, then with John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan ballets at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, including Solitaire (1956) and Benjamin Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas (1957). He designed I Puritani for Joan Sutherland at Glyndebourne, and La Traviata and Iolanthe for the Sadler’s Wells Opera.
Desmond Heeley, an ‘Alchemist’ of Theater Design, Dies at 85
Desmond Heeley, a celebrated designer for the theater, the opera and the ballet, whose costumes dressed the likes of Laurence Olivier, Beverly Sills and Margot Fonteyn, and whose sets were used in major productions throughout the world, died on June 10 in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was cancer, said Philip Caggiano, a friend.
With a painterly eye for beauty and the resourcefulness to create the impression of elegance from the most mundane materials — a glittering chandelier for a 1993 production of “La Traviata” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was made from plastic spoons — Mr. Heeley was a designer of both grandeur and witty panache.
Mr. Heeley has no immediate survivors. His partner, Lance Mulcahy, a composer, died in 1998.