You want a flamingo? No problem! A rare glimpse inside the RSC's mind-boggling props HQ

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 sitting 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.

‘There’s nothing off limits’ … boats, brass, polyphon and other RSC props. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The genial Fell is head of prop construction. In his office, almost everything is a prop. That bottle of Echo Falls 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, which is 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.

Country house re-creation … Adrian Edmondson, centre, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Country house re-creation … Adrian Edmondson, centre, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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 alluring variety of late Victoriana includes trinkets and tea services, plus a barrel piano, a flamingo and a life-size boat. The unlikeliest item may be a rare musical instrument, the polyphon. Fell describes it as “an early jukebox” and the workshop will make its every component, from its discs to its frontage to its spinning mechanism (sourced from an old clock).

Such a range demands a variety of skills. So who makes 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, along with 3D printing, 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 cerebral, 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!’”

‘It’s a jigsaw puzzle’ … Alan Fell amid statues, radios and other props.

‘It’s a jigsaw puzzle’ … Alan Fell amid statues, radios and other props. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

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 period piano; waterproofing a pond. How, you ask, does a face loom through a door knocker? Well, first 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 Atkins-Smith, 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 theatre audience will appreciate this level of detail, though spectators at the live cinema broadcast may well clock more. Atkins-Smith sounds pleased that a keenly sourced cherry brandy label may get its moment in the spotlight.

Fell trained in fine art sculpture (“literally the only thing at school I was good at”), but after graduation took a job at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield. Then, 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.

Cunning … a giant gold globe dominates the set of Imperium – it’s inflatable.

Cunning … a giant gold globe dominates the set of Imperium – it’s inflatable. Photograph: ikin Yum Photography

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 actually a cunningly painted inflatable. Even the mightiest items must come apart easily 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.

Upstairs in the drawing room, Charles MacCall stands at a screen. It’s his job to make virtual models, breaking down the sketches and separating out each stage of the process, so that people can decide where the casters should go, or how to strengthen an arch.

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 career of crutches … Antony Sher as Richard III in 1984 – the crutches occasionally crop up again.

The career of crutches … Antony Sher as Richard III in 1984 – the crutches occasionally crop up again. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Rex

The RSC will often buy unfinished reproduction period furniture. I see pieces carved in “properly over the top” 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.

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