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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
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 (rsc.org.uk/stitch-in-time). 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 (rsc.org.uk)