THEATRE Dressing up

The heart of the Royal Shakespeare Company is to get a boost in an £8.7m development for a vital component, its costume workshop, for which it has just been given planning permission. Simon Tait had an exclusive tour

The engine room of the Royal Shakespeare Company is a hidden secret, says the man who runs it. People who have lived in Stratford-upon-Avon all their lives don’t know it’s there, but without it the theatre company that brings more than 600,000 visitors to this small Warwickshire market town (population 28,000) could not function.

[Main image, Giua Print, copyright RSC]

Behind the double doors in Waterside that once admitted set flats brought from the theatre across the road is the RSC’s costume-making workshop – the wardrobe - a rambling, ramshackle hive of industry that makes 10,000 costumes and accessories a year for RSC productions, and only RSC productions. It has its own armoury, its own millinery and jewellery studio, a team of 35 specialist tailors and costumiers whose creations are all bespoke, based on an average of 30 measurements taken from each actor.

“What is fabulous is that we’ve got the largest in house production team in British theatre, something to be proud about, but most people have no idea what goes on behind those double doors” says Alistair McArthur, the head of the wardrobe.

But while the costumes for four productions are being made at the start of a season, the higgledy-piggledy nest of workshops is like nothing other than a Victorian sweatshop full of noise, steam, sometimes unbearable heat and people rushing with armfuls of costumes from one part of this frenetic factory to another. “Each costume will be worn at least 100 times, far more often than ordinary clothes will be” he says.

To the layman, this is more an enormous attic than a wardrobe - as it used to be called - packed with fascinating objects that cry out to be explored. The difference is that none of them have been forgotten, they are all labelled, carefully placed and destined for a useful life. Nearby is the store containing 30,000 costumes, available for hire not only by other drama companies but also the general public.

Making costumes for Queen Anne, photo Lucy Barriball, c.RSC

Costumes are made here, and altered for different actors taking the same roles – when Noma Dumezweni was playing Ursula in the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2014, a label inside the shoes she was given said “Peggy Ashcroft” (who’d played the role in 1950).

The central part of the building was once the scene dock for the 1870s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, largely burned down in the 1930s, but cottages around it were acquired, thanks to the support of a local brewery company, and after the wardrobe was established during the Second World War more small buildings were added.

But, to coin a cliché that for once is accurate, it is not fit for purpose. Some things have changed for the better in recent years, in that costume makers no longer have to work through the night or at weekends, but others can’t be put right without major changes.

The building has evolved on basically three levels, with little mezzanines here and there, and there is no lift. It means that costumes have to be manhandled individually up and down stairs from one department to another, to the fitting room, to storage space. There are low beams so that at eye-level there are yellow and black strips warning about limited headroom, while more yellow and black strips at foot level warn against unexpected steps. Some of the racks on which the costumes are kept were too tall to pass through the doorways, and had to be cut down; and then, their casters get caught in grooves in the old floor. In every spare corner there is a rack of clothes waiting for the next phase.

Milliner Kate Freshwater finds a corner on a workbench...

There is inadequate temperature control so that in high summer, Alistair McArthur says, he has to send people home because the conditions are unbearable. There are large ceiling windows in some rooms, but they let the rain in so that every night all costumes have to be covered or put away to prevent water damage. “Staff can barely move, the heat is unbearable and using fans just blows everything about” he adds.

In the fitting room Hamlets from Laurence Olivier to David Tennant, Cleopatras from Dorothy Tutin to Josette Simon, have had their final fittings. But more than once the space has been so crowded that McArthur has had to evacuate his office to accommodate the overflow.

The craftespeople here do everything, working from the fabric the RSC buys in bulk and stores here. They dye it, but the two dyeing tubs are too small for many of the sizes of material they have to work with, which means that some costumes have to be made from two pieces for which each dyeing tub has to be precisely the right temperature, with precisely the same amount of dye and water.

But that is changing. The company has launched an appeal, Stitch in Time (, to raise £8.7m for a scheme to transform the wardrobe, within the parameters of a Grade II listed building, and the Arts Council has already contributed £2.1m from the National Lottery. Planning permission was awarded today (November 9).

The costume operation is the signal piece in the RSC’s masterplan, says executive director Catherine Mallyon - the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre that opened in 2011, the Swan Wing with the new permanent exhibition, The Other Place nearby with its courtyard theatre and costume hire operation. “The new workshop will complete the heart of the Stratford campus” she says.

Photo Gina Print, c.RSC

It has been designed by the Aedas design practice which actually joined the experts at their worktables to know exactly what the requirements are. The new design will give 70% more space for the workshop, with platform lifts to all levels, level floors, wider staircases and capacious fitting rooms. The space behind the double doors where the dyeing tubs now are will become a reception area, and for the first time the wardrobe workshops will be linked to the RSC offices in adjacent Chapel Street.

“What we will also be able to do for the first time is take on apprentices” says McArthur. “Training for this very specialist work is rare, and the two areas we need to develop are millinery and jewellery and costume painting. These are not taught as career paths anywhere, and we need to invest in some training here – we can lead the way”. He hopes eventually to be able to take on up to six apprentices.

The workshop staff will move to the RSC’s former rehearsal rooms in Arden Street next spring, and return to its new space a year later. And for the first time visitors will be invited to tour the workshop, a hidden secret no more.

And although there will be 21st century facilities at last, the magic of the old building, McArthur says, will not be lost. “We’d still like to retain the building’s character and the artistic feel of the department, but we hope it will feel a bit less industrial.”


Getting behind Shakespeare

The surviving part of the 1879 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, now called the Swan Wing, has been transformed into a new public space, while keeping the Victorian richness intact.  What was the library has now become a bar that is also a cabinet of curiosities, some of the stories contributed by members of bygone casts. The chandelier is from David Tennant’s Hamlet of 2007; there’s a model of Sir Patrick Stewart’s first audition for the company; there are five tins of lychees recalling that when the company took King Lear to New York and asked the Lincoln Centre to include lychees in the props – to double as eyeballs - they produced five tons rather than five tins; there’s Josette Simon’s recollection of being told at school that, when she said she wanted to be an actor, she was told that acting was not for the likes of her, a black girl, and this year she became one of the RSC’s most dazzling Cleopatras; there is even the toilet flush – in the old theatre, audience members were asked not to pull the chain in the lavatory during performances because it could be heard on stage.

But the most important part of the £4.8m transformation of the Swan Wing which opened a year ago is to create a permanent exhibition, The Play’s the Thing, the story of playing Shakespeare in Stratford from decades before the Royal Shakespeare Company. In a stained glass window from his own time is the image of Sir Frank Benson, the great 19th century Shakespearean, in the costume of Richard II, one of his most famous roles in the old theatre, and nearby is the costume itself. Richard Burton was a famous Henry V in Stratford in 1951, and his costume – slightly faded – is on display, as is Laurence Olivier’s knitted chained mail. There is the precious 1623 First Folio – annotated.

The RSC was founded by Hall in 1961, and he shocked the establishment with his series The Wars of the Roses. Here is his own script with his edits – contrary to common belief Shakespeare is not sacred - and film of him addressing the cast. His rather clunky desk is now being used by his successor Greg Doran, but a replica stands in the exhibition, next to his favourite Robin Day designed chair.

Technology from Pepper’s Ghost - a trick of mirrors used here to present a Tom Piper designed set with Romeo and Juliet with dancers superimposed – and digital overlaying allows visitors to don costumes. You can even take the stage as Hamlet, playing opposite the actor Ewart James Walters as the Ghost.


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