If All the World’s a Stage – Then the Dome Inside The King’s Theatre is the Star

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The phrase “All the World’s a Stage” is a well-known line from As You Like It, but for theatre-goers in Scotland, this famous Shakespearian line now has an extra special meaning.  It’s the title of the stunning new mural by John Byrne that adorns the 85 square meter dome of the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh.  The theatre recently underwent a £9 million refurbishment and restoration that includes Byrne’s captivating mural above the Viennese baroque auditorium.  The acclaimed Scottish painter and playwright was commissioned to design & paint the mural by the Festival City Theatres Trust, and it depicts a scene filled with theatricality and magic that includes a black harlequin carrying the sun through the clouds, a celestial, flamed-haired woman covered in a star-cloth pushing the moon and, of course, Jaques’ famous line from the play – and the title of the mural – scribed in a bright red ribbon that streaks through the piece.

John Byrne & “All the World’s a Stage.” © Colin Hattersley

Working with a team of painters, led by Edinburgh artist Kevin Leary, Byrne created the mural in five weeks in order to unveil the work at the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival.  Leary shared some of the challenges of this project and the techniques he employed to overcome them.

Work begins on the dome.

“I feel I could write a small novel based on my 34 days on the scaffolding” was the response Kevin Leary gave us when we asked him to talk about the challenges of this job.  The biggest issue was to work out how to draw John Byrne’s design onto the dome. The traditional method of using full size drawings and mark through them was too slow and not flexible enough. Leary decided to project the 2-dimentional cartoon onto the curved 3-dimensional dome.  Fortunately Byrne had cleverly designed the piece so that the main figures fell within the more horizontal areas. The close proximity of the scaffold deck to the ceiling and the fisheye effect of a short throw projector meant the design had to be broken up into sections. Using specialized software Leary had found, he overlaid a grid across the image.  Then, by moving around grid points in the software, the image was modified into the right positions for the dome. It looked very odd on screen, but great on the ceiling! Leary created a grid of (25) 2m square projections and used a couple of projectors which were modified to lie on their backs. The whole process took about a week and all were relieved when the full image was drawn in place and all connected.

Kevin Leary projects and cartoons Byrne’s design onto the dome.

The short time to complete the work was another major challenge as it left little margin for error and and there was little contingency for correcting anything that did not work.  It was a case of just fix it and quickly.  The project turned out to be physically demanding for the team, with 14+ hour days exacerbated by the extra effort of painting above your head the whole time.  The scaffolding was coming down regardless of the state of the painting, and Leary knew he would not get to see the piece properly until the scaffolding was removed (and it was too late to correct anything!).  Adding up the physical demands, the complexity of the project and the time constraints he had to work under, Leavy said this was “undoubtedly my toughest commission.”

You try painting above your head 14 hours a day for 34 days straight.

Given the time constraints, Byrne and Leary had several practical issues to work out such as paint, materials, equipment, lighting and many quality copies of the artwork. As far as paint was concerned, Leary chose to use water-based paint to ensure he could work at great speed and to guarantee the surface would be dry to varnish upon completion. Plus, it was much healthier to work with in the confined space of the scaffolding.

Rosco Supersaturated Paint

Leary chose Rosco’s Supersaturated Paint because of his familiarity with it in his theatrical work – he knew the product very well and felt confident its great qualities would work well for this project. “The colours contain amazing pigment strength and are so well suited to diluting with water, mediums or other paint such as white emulsion. This makes the paint ideal for using with a spray gun which was invaluable on this work, especially for the clouds. The surface finish of the Rosco paint is excellent – very even soft feel but with strong colours.”  Leary liaised with Jenny Knott, Rosco’s paint & coatings product manager and one of the few artists who has actually painted a dome of this size.  Leary reports that she “offered loads of help for no return and gave me a lifeline via her mobile phone should I have any problems on site.”

Kevin Leary assesses the work.

The mural in the dome is ‘the icing on the cake’ of the restoration of the much loved King’s Theatre (affectionately known as ‘the Old Lady of Leven Street) as it marks the completion of the major refurbishment designed and project managed by Rachel Simmonds of Smith Scott Mullan Associates.  Out of all the upgrades inside ‘The King’s’, including luxurious new seating, new carpeting, a new ventilation system and a completely refreshed and restored interior – it’s the masterpiece in the dome that takes center stage.

Before and after shots of the dome at the King’s Theatre.

Below is a time-lapse video that documents the intense workload, dedication and commitment undertaken by Byrne’s creative team. It showcases all of the stages of the project beginning with the scaffold construction, then surface preparation, projected tracing of the original image, drawing, and finally the painting and varnish of the artwork.

All The World’s A Stage (Shorter Version) from Neil Kempsell on Vimeo.

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Jenny Knott

About Jenny Knott

Scenic Paint & Coating Product Manager: A graduate from the University of Missouri, Kansas City with an MFA in Design and Technology, Jenny has been a freelance scenic artist for over 30 years – working for regional theatres including Missouri Rep (now KC Rep), Arena Stage, the Guthrie and Goodspeed Opera House as well as union scene shops. Jenny is a member of United Scenic Artists 829 as well as a past member of USITT’s Board of Directors. Jenny continues to paint, which keeps her current with emerging scenic artists and helps her discover new ways of approaching paint challenges. “Bring on the goop and let’s get creative.”