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The props boss calls their work ‘the cut­ting edge of cock­ing about’

From gleam­ing crowns to bub­bling caul­drons, from pink flamin­goes to fork­lift trucks, the RSC’S props HQ is a place of mind-bog­gling the­atri­cal alchemy. David Jays meets its mir­a­cle-work­ers

Look­ing for a crocodile? Well, what size are you af­ter? Be­cause the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany has loads, in all shapes, colours and sizes, from tiny to hu­mungous. Jaw agape, I’m wan­der­ing round its vast props depart­ment in Stratford-upon-avon. Part Aladdin’s Cave, part Step­toe’s junk­yard, the store con­tains shelf af­ter shelf of ex­otic – and ev­ery­day – ob­jects. Here be can­dle­sticks, lanterns, golf clubs and cake stands, not to men­tion a whole rack of jan­gling man­a­cles. There’s a squat scar­let TV atop a pile of out­moded elec­tri­cal items, while a selec­tion of stop­pered glass bot­tles in­cludes one in­trigu­ingly la­belled “sperm oil”. But most eye-catch­ing are those crocs, the largest a hinge-jawed beast that hung over the stage in a pro­duc­tion of The Al­chemist. “Colin, we call him,” the RSC’S Alan Fell says fondly.

If you can wear it, it’s a cos­tume. If you can move it, it’s a prop. If you can’t move it, it’s scenery. And, with enough props in store, you can stage any­thing. In 1598, Philip Henslowe, Shake­speare’s own im­pre­sario, made an in­ven­tory of his com­pany’s props: along with nu­mer­ous weapons and crowns, there was a boar’s head, a wooden leg, a golden fleece and the caul­dron in which Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is boiled to death.

The ge­nial Fell is head of prop con­struc­tion. In his of­fice, al­most ev­ery­thing is a prop. That bot­tle of wine? Prop. That blue­bird in a cage? Prop.

The team are al­ways on duty. He and Ju­lia Wade, his part­ner and col­league, picked up some use­ful wine glasses on hol­i­day, and he has just spent £700 on a stuffed goat (there are at least two other stuffed goats on the premises, but they’re the wrong goats). Else­where, peo­ple are tug­ging wood through the cut­ting ma­chine or peer­ing at nee­dles, as the team work on three ma­jor pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing a Twelfth Night set in 1890s Bri­tain. They en­joy ex­plor­ing new ar­eas, says de­signer Si­mon Higlett. “They loved Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado,” he says, since both were set around the first world war. “They got to make props they hadn’t done be­fore.”

The new Twelfth Night in­hab­its an English coun­try-house world, cre­ated from sev­eral real lo­ca­tions. The con­ser­va­tory of Pet­worth House in Sus­sex, stuffed with clas­si­cal stat­ues, in­spired the gar­den where Adrian Ed­mond­son’s Malvo­lio is duped by a fake love let­ter, while an­other ma­jor source was Wightwick Manor, an en­tic­ing arts and crafts house in the West Mid­lands.

Higlett of­ten makes com­pre­hen­sive props sketches, as well as “mod­els of mu­seum-wor­thy de­tail”. As he says: “Prop-mak­ers re­spond to a model – it se­duces them.” Twelfth Night’s ght’s al­lur­ing va­ri­ety of late Vic­to­ri­ana na in­cludes trin­kets and tea ser­vices, plus lus a bar­rel pi­ano, a flamingo and a life-size -size boat. The un­like­li­est item may be e a rare mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, the polyphon. olyphon.

Fell de­scribes it as “an early y juke­box” and the work­shop will make ke its every com­po­nent, from its discs to its frontage to its spin­ning mech­a­nism ch­a­nism ). (sourced from an old clock).

Such a range de­mands a va­ri­ety of skills. So who makes es a good prop-maker? I ask Dot Young, who leads the props course at the Royal Cen­tral School of Speech and Drama. “If you have a tal­ent for work­ing in three di­men­sions,” says Young, who ini­tially planned to study en­gi­neer­ing, “you will of­ten be pushed to­wards fine art sculp­ture, prod­uct de­sign or jew­ellery. But there’s this other place with high-end out­comes, where you work col­lab­o­ra­tively. We look for stu­dents with a pas­sion for mak­ing. They’re the peo­ple who in a meet­ing will be mak­ing a lit­tle pa­per horse, or a man out of Blu Tack.”

Up to eight stu­dents are ac­cepted by Cen­tral each year. They’re drilled in pe­riod re­search as well as car­pen­try, em­broi­dery and met­al­work. There are also the vi­tal hu­man skills, such as learn­ing how to col­lab­o­rate with de­sign teams and “avoid mak­ing some­thing so pre­cious you won’t want any­one to han­dle it”. Young men­tions one fur­ther essen­tial skill: “How to deal with a change in the pro­duc­tion that means your ob­ject is cut.”

In an in­creas­ingly bud­get-squeezed, dig­i­tal-rich world, what are the prospects for Young’s as­pi­rant mak­ers?

Not as glum as I’d imag­ined. “By the third year, over 80% of the stu­dents have em­ploy­ment lined up,” she says. “Mak­ing is hav­ing a huge re­nais­sance. When CGI first came in, there was a sense that it was a death knell. But the bud­getary costs of CGI are enor­mous – some­times it makes more sense to make things. Sim­i­larly, 3D print­ing does the ba­sic, bor­ing bits – and al­lows us to im­merse our­selves in fun prob­lem-solv­ing.” That seems to be Young’s prime plea­sure. “Quite of­ten, you are the first per­son ever to solve

a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. I tell stu­dents, ‘You are the new al­chemists!’”

Fell, less loftily, calls this process

“the cut­ting edge of cock­ing about”. Here are some of the chal­lenges when I visit: mak­ing the ghost of Ja­cob Mar­ley ma­te­ri­alise in Scrooge’s door-knocker; con­ceal­ing speak­ers in a pi­ano; waterproofing a pond. How, you ask, does a face loom through a door knocker? Well, a cast of the ac­tor’s face is cov­ered with rub­ber, then it’s sucked tight to re­veal the fea­tures. It’s prac­ti­cally magic.

An es­pe­cially en­tic­ing cor­ner of the work­shop is de­voted to pa­per and fab­ric, or “soft props”. Mag­gie Atkin­sSmith, deep in rail­way ephemera for a key scene in Twelfth Night, shows me a plas­tic folder of Vic­to­rian train tick­ets, printed in red and white, from a fic­tional train com­pany called Great Cen­tral Rail­ways. Higlett has also re­quested ac­cu­rate timeta­bles and tube maps. Few peo­ple in the au­di­ence will ap­pre­ci­ate this level of de­tail, though spec­ta­tors at the live cin­ema broad­cast may well clock more.

Fell trained in fine art sculp­ture, but af­ter grad­u­a­tion took a job at the Cru­cible theatre in Sh­effield. Be­fore com­ing to Stratford, he spent 18 years at the Royal Ex­change in Manch­ester. A theatre in the round, it of­fered a 360-de­gree chal­lenge. “Ev­ery­thing we did,” he says, “had to look as real as we could pos­si­bly make it.” Even if au­di­ences don’t no­tice de­tail, Fell adds, “ac­tors find it help­ful – it puts them in the mo­ment.” He al­lows him­self a quiet preen about Hi­lary Man­tel’s thank-you card for some well-re­searched Tu­dor doc­u­ments that went into the RSC’S adap­ta­tion of Wolf Hall.

The largest work­room is dom­i­nated by a mas­sive golden globe hang­ing in readi­ness for Im­perium, adapted from Robert Har­ris’s Cicero tril­ogy. It looks hefty, but is a cun­ningly painted in­flat­able. Even the might­i­est items must come apart to be stored or trans­ported. “It’s a jig­saw puzzle,” Fell says. The RSC’S re­cent Co­ri­olanus in­cluded a fork­lift truck. The real thing would have been far too heavy, so they had to gut an old one, leav­ing it very flimsy. The need to make ev­ery­thing as light as pos­si­ble is why mak­ers re­vere ply­wood.

Pre­cious ob­jects in our own homes mostly sit un­touched, but on stage a gor­geous vase might be smashed every night then re­assem­bled. “That’s what makes it fun and in­ter­est­ing,” says

Fell. “You’re con­stantly look­ing at new ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. We use a lot of med­i­cal stuff, es­pe­cially when mak­ing casts. There’s noth­ing off lim­its – if it works, we’ll use it.”

The RSC will of­ten buy un­fin­ished re­pro­duc­tion fur­ni­ture. I see pieces carved in Ital­ianate twid­dles, wait­ing for the brass­work and uphol­stery teams to add individual fea­tures. The only things they can’t do on site are laser-cut­ting and 3D print­ing. Their cut­ter runs on wa­ter and sand: since it doesn’t heat up, pa­per and foam can be sliced without warp­ing them. The fierce-toothed ma­chine can also cut through six inches of steel. “If we can draw it,” says Fell, “we can cut it out.”

When Twelfth Night is fi­nally done and dusted, all these highly wrought, eye-catch­ing ob­jects will join ev­ery­thing else in the store. It’s a melan­choly prospect. They may later emerge for ac­tors to use in re­hearsals while their own props are be­ing made.

Antony Sher’s mem­oir about play­ing Richard III de­tails the usurper’s eye-catch­ing crutches. Al­most 30 years later, when he re­hearses Fal­staff, some­one pulls a crutch from a heap in the stu­dio cor­ner and says: “Tony, isn’t this yours?” Sher goes over. “A bit dusty and scuffed, but un­mis­tak­ably the thing it­self,” he writes. “And here it is now, an old prop in a re­hearsal room.” From spot­light to store: props, like ac­tors, have poignant ca­reers.

Twelfth Night is at the Royal Shake­speare theatre, Stratford-upon-avon, un­til 24 Fe­bru­ary, and live in cin­e­mas on 14 Fe­bru­ary.

There’s a huge gold globe, ready to hang in Im­perium. It looks hefty – but it’s in­flat­able

Trea­sure trove …

above, a flamingo in the work­shop; a scale model;

be­low, Adrian Ed­mond­son in the gar­den cre­ated for Twelfth Night; Antony Sher as Richard III in 1984 – his crutches resur­face oc­ca­sion­ally

‘Noth­ing is off lim­its. If it works, we’ll use it!’ … from top, the gut­ted fork­lift for Co­ri­olanus; as­sorted stat­ues; a re-cre­ated polyphon mu­sic box

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