The sew must go on

Mix­ing blood, mas­ter­mind­ing corsets that al­low for a quick change, and mak­ing the brand-new look bat­tle-worn us­ing a cheese grater and a blow­torch… Wel­come to the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany’s cos­tume work­shop. By Guy Kelly. Pho­to­graphs by Daniel Stier

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Be­hind the scenes at the RSC, Guy Kelly vis­its the ar­mour ar­chi­tects and fake-blood mixol­o­gists of its revered cos­tume work­shop

On a hoary morn­ing in Strat­ford-up­on­avon, in a tiny workspace some­where be­tween a nook and a cranny, three women are do­ing what they do best: sys­tem­at­i­cally ru­in­ing pris­tine items of cloth­ing.

‘To­day we’re rough­ing up Ban­quo,’ says He­len Hughes, the leader of the trio, nod­ding at a leg­less man­nequin in a sim­ple black suit jacket. What­ever they’ve done to Mac­beth’s one-time friend (no spoil­ers), they’ve done a thor­ough job: the gar­ment is sil­vered with dust, scuffed at the edges and seem­ingly crum­pled from overuse. ‘It’s ac­tu­ally a brand-new buy-in, this. But he’ll have just been in bat­tle, so we’re get­ting him lovely and mucky, you know?’

Hughes and her col­leagues are three of the 30-odd full-time crafts­peo­ple who work in the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany’s (RSC) in-house cos­tume work­shop, just across the road from its flag­ship theatre, in a slightly bedrag­gled, Grade Ii-listed for­mer scene store. Cos­tumes have been made on the site for the past 131 years. And since the com­pany moved in full-time in the 1950s, al­most ev­ery RSC pro­duc­tion and ev­ery RSC ac­tor – from Peggy Ashcroft to Mia Far­row, John Giel­gud to Daniel Day-lewis – has had cos­tumes cre­ated in this un­even lit­tle col­lec­tion of rooms.

It’s a slick process honed over the decades, and Hughes’ pro­fes­sion­ally de­struc­tive team has an es­sen­tial role in it. As head of dye­ing and paint­ing, she is given wear­able items – cloth­ing, shoes, masks, you name it – sourced or made by col­leagues in ad­join­ing rooms, then sets about adding what­ever fin­ish­ing touches a scene re­quires. It can in­volve a sim­ple colour job (she gets through 130lb of dye pow­der a year) for a strip of fab­ric, but mostly it’s about mak­ing things look ‘au­then­tic’.

‘We call it “break­ing down”,’ she says, ges­tur­ing quo­ta­tion marks with her fin­gers. ‘Most cos­tumes need to look as if it isn’t the first time they’ve ever been worn, so we wash them all, then steam them to give them nat­u­ral creases, or rip them, or maybe pack the pock­ets with peb­bles if we want it to look like some­one’s had their hands in there a lot… then we add what­ever is needed on top.’

Any­thing from a blow­torch to a cheese grater is used to make things look worn, while on top of this ef­fect might go textured paint mix­tures for mud, vomit, sweat or – fre­quently – blood. The team are par­tic­u­lar ex­perts on grue­some wounds. Ask Hughes to make a tu­nic blood-soaked, for in­stance, and she will re­spond with:

‘What kind? There’s veinal blood, ar­te­rial blood, ed­i­ble blood, newly dry blood, crusty old blood… You don’t want it to be too red – that looks bad – but then there are so many types and thick­nesses. Ours is a se­cret recipe, though. And it will re­main so.’

If the ‘break­ing down’ draws a gar­ment’s ges­ta­tion pe­riod to a close, Alis­tair Mcarthur, the RSC’S head of cos­tume, is the per­son who kicks it all off. A few months be­fore a pro­duc­tion be­gins, he meets with the play’s ap­pointed cos­tume de­signer – al­ways a free­lancer – and de­vises a plan of ac­tion. They dis­cuss the his­tor­i­cal pe­riod and the gen­eral con­cept, then Mcarthur con­sid­ers what needs to

be made from scratch and what could be reused or just bought in. Some­times de­sign­ers have ex­act draw­ings to il­lus­trate their bold cre­ative vi­sion, some­times it’s just a stream of words. He doesn’t pass judge­ment.

‘We’re not here to de­sign the cos­tumes, we’re here to re­alise what the de­signer wants, so it isn’t for us to ques­tion,’ the 51-year-old says, hug­ging a cup of cof­fee in his small ground-floor of­fice, which fea­tures a 5ft poster of Ge­orge Hearn, the Amer­i­can mu­si­cal-theatre star, in drag.

‘I will ad­mit there are oc­ca­sions when you look at some­thing and think, “Oh, I think they’ve made a mis­take there,” but some de­sign­ers like a bit of feed­back, and oth­ers re­ally don’t. There is no set way of do­ing this.’

Mcarthur took up his po­si­tion in 2002, hav­ing pre­vi­ously worked as a free­lance cos­tume su­per­vi­sor at the Na­tional Theatre and the Royal Opera House. Ven­er­a­ble though those es­tab­lish­ments are, the RSC’S cos­tume work­shop is the big­gest (by head­count, any­way) and ar­guably most pro­lific in the coun­try. Di­vided into five main de­part­ments – men’s cos­tume, ladies’ cos­tume, footwear and ar­moury, dye­ing and paint­ing, and jew­ellery and millinery – it has scarcely changed in decades.

Af­ter the ini­tial meet­ings, Mcarthur steps back and al­lows the in-house cos­tume su­per­vi­sor to start sourc­ing fab­rics and threads. Re­cently the com­pany signed a three-year deal with the world’s lead­ing thread man­u­fac­turer, Coats, to help sup­ply the 186,000 yards of cos­tume thread the RSC gets through each year. There are hun­dreds of fab­ric sam­ples in the build­ing, too, and even more in­spi­ra­tion to draw from in a vast ware­house five min­utes down the road, where about 30,000 old cos­tumes are pre­served in a tem­per­a­ture- and hu­mid­ity-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment to avoid damp or crit­ters de­stroy­ing them. In­vari­ably, though, it takes re­search trips to Lon­don, phone calls to sup­pli­ers around the world and an aw­ful lot of googling to find a par­tic­u­lar colour or pat­tern match­ing the de­signer’s imag­i­na­tion. Fab­rics fre­quently come from Italy and France, crowns from Bavaria, and hab­er­dash­ery from New York.

Along the cor­ri­dor, Emma Harrup, head of men’s cos­tume, stands at a navel-high work­sta­tion, over­see­ing a li­brary-quiet group of cut­ters and cos­tu­miers, all hunched over sewing ma­chines. To­gether they cre­ate hun­dreds of cos­tumes for some­where be­tween 15 and 30 shows

‘David Ten­nant likes things that are quite slen­der and fit­ted, so we’d al­ways take that into con­sid­er­a­tion’

a year, often work­ing on three or four wildly dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions at a time. When I visit they are The Fan­tas­tic Fol­lies of Mrs Rich, a com­edy writ­ten in 1700 by Mary Pix; John Web­ster’s bloody The Duchess of Malfi; and a con­tem­po­rary Mac­beth, star­ring Christo­pher Ec­cle­ston. Be­ing modern-dress, the last is an easy one, the team say. A fan­tas­tic mil­i­tary coat has been made for Ec­cle­ston, but he and Ni­amh Cu­sack, play­ing Lady Mac­beth, will mostly wear shop-bought clothes, al­tered to look per­fect.

If it was re­ally re­quired and the whole team dropped every­thing, a pe­riod cos­tume could be cut, fit­ted and fin­ished within a cou­ple of very long days. Gen­er­ally, though, fab­rics ar­rive in the men’s room sev­eral weeks ahead of re­hearsals. Three cut­ters spend two or three days shap­ing the gar­ment ahead of its first fit­ting, af­ter which it will be fully made to mea­sure, then fin­ished over an­other few days. And it will fit: at the be­gin­ning of each sea­son, ev­ery mem­ber of the act­ing com­pany has about 50 mea­sure­ments taken. La­bels list­ing ac­tor and pro­duc­tion are sewn into every­thing, too, leav­ing no room for mix-ups.

Harrup pulls out one ac­tor’s file. The waist and in­side leg are noted, as ex­pected, but so are things like his ‘small calf ’ (for breeches, ob­vi­ously), tat­toos, and even any al­ler­gies. This one is ve­gan.

‘That’s a bit more com­mon now, so we’d not use fur, and keep leather to a min­i­mum,’ she says. Harrup ar­rived here 23 years ago with a the­atre­design de­gree and no cut­ting ex­pe­ri­ence; now she’s made cos­tumes for ‘ev­ery pe­riod in his­tory’.

Dame Judi Dench, who first acted with the RSC in 1961, once said that ‘no mat­ter how much re­hearsal time you have, you can­not get fully into the part un­til you are in cos­tume’. And some ac­tors ‘have a strong idea of how they’d like to look’, Mcarthur says, which is taken on board. ‘Some‘down body like David Ten­nant is very amenable, but he likes things that are quite slen­der and fit­ted, so we’d al­ways take that into con­sid­er­a­tion.’

Should a cos­tume prop be re­quired, that’ll be made down­stairs, by Alan Smith. The longest­serv­ing mem­ber of staff in the build­ing (29 years and count­ing), he runs the on-site ar­moury – one of only two in Bri­tish theatre.

‘The ac­tors like com­ing here,’ he says proudly. ‘They be­come big kids, get­ting their weapons. The girls just as much as the boys.’

Hav­ing worked his way up af­ter join­ing as a trainee leather worker in 1989, Smith has seen few changes round here.

here we can vac­uum-form moulds now, which makes things a bit quicker, and ma­te­ri­als are al­ways get­ting lighter. Some­thing like chain mail has al­ways been too heavy to use the real thing, though. The ac­tors can’t move, you see.’

I show him An­gus Mcbean’s pho­to­graph of Richard Bur­ton as Henry V in 1951. The crown and scep­tre, he reck­ons, will have been made right where he’s stand­ing.

Smith makes swords (the blades gen­er­ally come in, blunted, from a met­al­works nearby, though a butch­ery scene in The Duchess of Malfi means a rare sharp one has been or­dered), scab­bards, belts, breast­plates, gauntlets and hel­mets, and hap­pily takes on any other odds and sods, too, such as Cap­tain Hook’s hook, a mer­maid’s shell bra, and a wear­able pig’s head from 1993 that he still keeps on his desk.

‘What about the dildo?’ a col­league be­hind him pipes up mis­chie­vously.

‘Yes, yes, I did have to make a big dildo once, too,’ he con­firms, sound­ing al­most solemn for a mo­ment. ‘I just like solv­ing prob­lems.’

Up­stairs in the ladies’ work­shop, re­splen­dent cos­tumes for The Fan­tas­tic Fol­lies of Mrs Rich have been cut and fit­ted. It’s all huge far­thin­gales, bum rolls (un­der­wear is hand­made and pe­riod too, of course), pas­tel colours and jew­elled em­bel­lish­ments. This is a fun one, the five women work­ing say, though they all agree the best re­cent job was last win­ter’s A Christ­mas Carol, which gave them the rare chance to make Vic­to­rian cos­tumes. Mcarthur’s all-time favourite, mean­while, was 2012’s A Sol­dier in Ev­ery Son – The Rise of the Aztecs, whose Mex­i­can cos­tume de­signer, Eloise Kazan, pre­sented ‘weird, un­usual shapes we had no idea about – but the team just ran with it’.

To the lay­man, the dresses and corsets be­ing fin­ished ap­pear ev­ery bit as fid­dly as the real things. In re­al­ity, quick cos­tume changes mean

dummy lac­ing is re­quired, leav­ing in­dus­tri­al­strength mag­nets to hold every­thing to­gether. They’re the best op­tion: Vel­cro’s too loud and leaves a bulge; zips get stuck. Du­pli­cates are made for scenes re­quir­ing cos­tumes to be soiled, and the many non-wash­able ones have in­ner cos­tumes, or ‘shields’, which can be taken out and washed, while oth­ers are dry-cleaned. Over 100 en­er­getic per­for­mances, on­stage rips and tears are com­mon, so ev­ery day in­cludes some re­pair time. It isn’t a case of strength over fin­ery, mind. De­tail is every­thing, es­pe­cially since RSC pro­duc­tions are oc­ca­sion­ally beamed into cin­e­mas.

‘It’s had a big­ger ef­fect on wigs [made by the sep­a­rate wigs and make-up de­part­ment], be­cause of what you can see close-up, but the cam­eras are good for us – it means we hire our old cos­tumes out to films more,’ Mcarthur says. Many old cre­ations go into the ware­house and stay there, but it’s just as com­mon for them to be re­strength­ened and reused by the RSC, or hired out. Shake­speare in Love, Gla­di­a­tor and Brave­heart all used RSC left­overs.

Ev­ery­body I come across is fan­tas­ti­cally skilled, cre­ative and happy in their work (‘I can­not help but show off in the play­ground on World Book Day; I send the kids in look­ing amaz­ing – this year it was Cleopa­tra,’ one milliner laughs), but all this could be a lot eas­ier if only the RSC em­braced tech­nol­ogy a bit more. Or out­sourced pro­duc­tion. Or just low­ered its stan­dards. Mcarthur scoffs at the thought.

‘There are faster ways of laser-cut­ting stuff that would be per­fect and pris­tine, but a lot of what we do by hand gives a rich­ness and depth. We keep those crafts go­ing. And any im­per­fec­tions add lay­ers and make a cos­tume come alive more,’ he says.

As a com­mit­ment to the value the RSC places on Mcarthur’s team, the en­tire de­part­ment will re­lo­cate to some re­hearsal rooms over the next 18 months while the work­shop un­der­goes a ren­o­va­tion, care­fully re­plac­ing the flood-prone and rick­ety Vic­to­rian rooms with 21st-cen­tury spa­ces that will also al­low for pub­lic tours.

To help fund that £8.7 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion, the com­pany’s Stitch in Time cam­paign is run­ning an on­line auc­tion of 50 still-la­belled his­toric pieces – from the top hat Sir Ian Mck­ellen wore in Sir Trevor Nunn’s 2007 pro­duc­tion of The Seag­ull ,tothe bloody ar­mour Sir Derek Ja­cobi wore in 1993’s Mac­beth – dat­ing back to the 1970s, later this month. About 10,000 old cos­tumes were sold in a mas­sive pub­lic sale last year, too, bring­ing in £50,000. But with more than £1 mil­lion still needed, the pres­sure is on.

‘These spa­ces are great and full of char­ac­ter, but they’re not easy to work in. We strug­gle with where we can store stuff, we’ve got low beams, chang­ing floor lev­els, and rails chained to walls…’ Mcarthur says. ‘The up­grade is hugely, hugely over­due, but it’s what the RSC re­ally de­serves.’

BQuick changes mean dummy lac­ing is re­quired, leav­ing in­dus­trial-streng th mag­nets to hold cos­tumes to­gether

ack up­stairs, Hughes con­sid­ers a line-up of man­nequins stand­ing haugh­tily up against a wall. They il­lus­trate the range of work the RSC pro­duces, be it Shake­spearean or other­wise. There are con­tem­po­rary mil­i­tary fa­tigues, 18th­cen­tury gowns, and one is even in punk­ish leather bondage gear.

‘Here’s the best one,’ she says, em­phat­i­cally putting down her paint­brush. ‘One time there was a pro­duc­tion we had to make some poo for, and af­ter the tech­ni­cal re­hearsal we had a note say­ing it wasn’t vis­i­ble enough, and could we make it shinier.’ She takes a per­fect, the­atri­cal beat. ‘We were quite lit­er­ally be­ing asked to pol­ish a turd.’ As part of the RSC’S Stitch in Time fundrais­ing cam­paign for the ren­o­va­tion, an on­line cos­tume auc­tion will take place on ebay from 17 April to 27 April ( Shake­speare by Mcbean, a col­lec­tion of more than 300 theatre pho­to­graphs taken at Strat­ford-up­on­avon by renowned pho­tog­ra­pher An­gus Mcbean, will be pub­lished by Manch­ester Univer­sity Press in Oc­to­ber (

Per­fect­ing a blazer for Mac­beth’s Cham­ber­lain; He­len Hughes, head of dye­ing and paint­ing

Pieces from Morte d’arthur; Alan Smith, head of cos­tume props, footwear and ar­moury

Emma Har­rup, head of men’s cos­tume; from a pro­duc­tion of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoe­maker’s Hol­i­day

An­gus Mcbean’s por­trait of Richard Bur­ton as Henry V, 1951

Be­low Denise Ed­wards, head of ladies’ cos­tume. Left Work on a piece for this sea­son’s The Fan­tas­tic Fol­lies of Mrs Rich

In­side the menswear work­shop

Char­lotte Hobbs, se­nior the­atri­cal milliner and jew­eller; David Ten­nant’s cos­tume from Love’s Labour Lost is a lot in the RSC’S up­com­ing fundrais­ing auc­tion

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