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  • A scene from Warhorse at the National Theatre. Photo brinkhoff & mögenburg

How plays get made: backstage at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has a powerhouse of creative talent working behind the scenes

Arriving at the National Theatre for my backstage tour a few minutes early, I flick through the current programme to try and hazard a guess as to which shows are most likely being worked on. There’s an already started, sell-out run of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies; a new play, Saint George and the Dragon (which, I later find out, begins technical rehearsals the next day) and a production of Pinocchio in December. Typically, this is just a snippet of what’s on. The National Theatre – which began in 1963 when the in-house company, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, gave its first performance of Hamlet – puts on around 25 productions in rep each year, across three theatres on London’s South Bank.

My tour begins in the office of Giuseppe Cannas, head of wigs, hair and make-up, who tells me that while concept meetings take place a few months before a production, often actors aren’t measured for a wig until the first week of rehearsals. ‘We create a head wrap with cling film and Sellotape, transfer it to a malleable block, and pad it out with paper or wadding to get the exact shape of someone’s head,’ he explains. ‘Then we make the foundation of the wig using a very fine lace net, which is sewn together with nylon thread. To get to that point takes around eight to ten hours.’

Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant Plummer in 'Follies' at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Human hair is then knotted through the net a single strand at a time, which, according to Cannas, is a dying craft. ‘It’s incredibly time-consuming – a wig can take around 40-45 hours to make – and demanding on your eyesight. So many wigs are made by machines these days, and colleges aren’t teaching the right skills.’ He cites other reasons, too, including the fact that hair is becoming more expensive as the demand from the film and fashion industry (particularly for extensions) increases, making it harder for theatre productions with limited budgets.

Cannas oversees a core team of 12 wig makers, head dressers, a barber, make-up artists and a special effects make-up artist, but for Follies his staff numbers doubled. ‘It’s the biggest show I’ve worked on since joining the National six years ago; there are about 80 wigs on stage.’ The show is currently ‘resting’ for two weeks, which means it’s the perfect time to clean up, set and re-dress the wigs. As we walk around the workshop, I pass Rachel Lidster who is soaking and combing through a 1930s finger-wave wig. I see shelves of wigs in curlers waiting to be baked in the oven to help the styles set, and others with elastic bands holding the hairdos in place. Each night before a performance, the wigs are taken to the dressing rooms and one of the team helps the actors to put them on.

Old wigs are given new hairlines and re-used. I stop to watch Sarah Packham, who has worked at the National Theatre for 12 years, using a knotting hook to thread hair through a net on a malleable block that is resting inside a small wooden box. ‘The box helps you turn the head at different angles,’ she says of the wig, which is being revamped for People, Places and Things, a touring production on its way to Broadway. ‘I also use a stand or rest it on my lap with a cushion. It’s important to keep moving it around because otherwise you get stiff.’

Production of 'Follies' at  the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Leaving this department behind, I’m whisked along a warren of corridors to meet Carol Lingwood, head of costume, whose team includes ladies’ and men’s tailors, alteration hands, dyers, costume prop-makers and buyers. At the beginning of each show, Lingwood and a costume supervisor meet with the designer to establish a costume breakdown – essentially how many costumes each character might need and whether they will be made in-house or bought (with contemporary productions, it’s more likely to be the latter).

On Follies, for example, virtually everything was made, but because of the number of costumes needed (around 150, plus 62 headdresses and hats), some were outsourced. ‘Making costumes is such a jigsaw puzzle: a tailor might be waiting for 20 feathers that need to be dyed in the dye shop and attached to a frame, which has to be made in the prop room. We have fantastic makers who we can send garments out to, but what we try and keep in-house are those costumes with many different elements,’ she says.

During the rehearsal period, the show’s designer is on hand to answer questions such as exactly where the 600,000 Swarovski crystals – which all have to be glued on by hand – for Follies need to be placed.

Right now, everyone in the main workroom is putting the finishing touches to costumes for Saint George and the Dragon, so we head straight to the dye shop. ‘For War Horse everything had to be covered in mud, but anything that requires a finish, whether that’s vomit, blood or something really subtle like sweat marks to make things look worn, happens here,’ says Lingwood.

I meet Claire Suckall, who is painting a silver mediaeval dragon costume for Saint George and the Dragon. ‘We’re making him look otherworldly using an expanding binder. It’s stencilled on and puffs up with heat,’ she says, recalling how the production’s designer, Rae Smith, knew she wanted to create something around the idea of grey mist. It strikes me that the dye shop team are really creative problem solvers, helping to realise and interpret what the designer has in mind.

There’s more problem-solving happening downstairs in the set department, where scenic artist Daina Ennis shows me two samples of a painted night sky adventure landscape with rollercoasters, on a scale of 1:25. One is on canvas, the other on thinner sheeting. ‘The designer wants to have the sky blocked out but a light shining through from the back, so that the structures glow and look more 3D. We projected the image onto the two materials, then used fabric paints.’ She shines a portable light through each sample to demonstrate what she means, and it’s immediately obvious that the sheeting is far more effective. Her next step will be to recreate the entire image to size, hanging the sheeting up on bars and painting the upper sections using a lift.Scenic Paint Studio. Photo: Philip Vile

‘In this department we’re often trying to make things look old and crumbling, so we create surfaces by mixing idenden paint with plaster,’ says Ennis of the set-building process, which starts with the designer’s scale model. ‘The idenden stops the plaster setting so quickly and makes it more flexible, so that when scenery is moved it doesn’t crack.’ As the team finishes off creating engraving effects on a Victorian gateway using sponge rollers for Saint George and the Dragon, I take my leave, passing an old War Horse puppet rigged up to the ceiling and a grey polystyrene, metal-powder painted statue of Simon Russell Beale as King Lear on the way out.

This is a huge theatrical powerhouse, one of only a handful in the country to operate on this scale, and it’s humbling to realise the level of craft and skill involved in each of these backstage departments – much of which is invisible to the audience.

As Cannas says: ‘The best compliment you can give me is when you come to a show and say that nobody has a wig, and I know that all the actors are wearing them. Then I’ve achieved my goal.’


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