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TOGAS, DAGGERS AND BLOOD

An inside and personal view of "dressing" Julius Caesar

by Kristina Kashvili-Michael

 

One bitterly cold evening (well outside it was bitter) I sat backstage in the Albery Theatre looking for future productions that might need a dresser or two (budget depending). I was well underway with the Royal Shakespeare's Season of "Tragedies" - done Hamlet, done Romeo and Juliet- yup, almost got the T shirt for Lear - with lovely people such as Toby Stephens, Corin Redgrave, Leo Wringer, June Watson, Greg Hicks and so many more. Addictive? Yes, one could say that. Shakespeare's words are like music with all the tones and qualities to move emotions - and so, when the Barbican website appeared with "Julius Caesar" in large print (sorry - font) e mails were quickly sent off.

 

"Cast of 100" isn't for the faint-hearted - mind you, neither is an actual cast of 130!!! The first days on Wardrobe Floor G (G for gorgeous we decided) was spent labelling. We labelled shirts, suits, ties, socks (oh those endless socks!), we scribbled initials onto T shirts, we had LW, SO'T, JK, CS, RS, SR, RF, SRB, JS, AL, DW, and what felt like "and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all"! The assistants to the Designer (Chloe Oblensky) seemed to be like conjurers with rabbits - every time another member of the cast was mentioned they would disappear into a small room, only to appear some time later with an armful of clothes to be tried on. How they remembered who what and where is still a mystery. Costumes that had to be made were being cut, machined, tried on, altered, - an array of ceremonial sashes had to be made - Ralph Fiennes' designer linen trousers from Issaye Miyake has to be copied by Jamie - in white not black - and just as we thought we could breathe - along came the stock from the US Army!!! If I live to be 100 I never want to see another pair of green wool army socks!!!!!

 

Now some people find men in uniforms very sexy - but be warned - without the uniform it means one thing and one thing only - that uniform is lurking somewhere to be washed, pressed and recognised! Indelible markers - my foot! The manufacturers obviously haven't come across 7 performances a week! Army kit has an awful lot of paraphernalia about it - there is the webbing - the flak jackets (I prefer flapjacks) , plastic guns, plastic daggers, helmet and water bottles - both to be labelled - like where? Finally the boots. Boots on their own are one thing, boots meet feet are something else - and when it comes down to boots meet unhappy, somewhat pissed off artist during heavy tech run, it is completely another ball game.

Having had the Barbican completely to ourselves for a few days, eventually the sound of correctly pronounced syllables wafted up the stairs - ah yes, the actors had arrived. Like holiday tourists descending on their hotel, they dragged bags and gear along same looking corridors in search of their name on a door - "just look for the one with the star" joked the actor who ended up with another seven in the same room.

 

It is with some trepidation that a dresser enters a room and introduces his or herself. "I am your dresser" felt the most antiquated of words in the 20 th century, it feels positively pre-historic in the 21st, but what else can one say? Those actors who have been around for some time take all this in their stride - but it seems to be hysterically funny to the just graduated who obviously have never heard the likes before. It has to be said that after a while they cottoned on beautifully to the idea and decided that the dresser was there to do everything. I didn't turn a hair when asked "to pass the grapes" - "yes, Splenius Capitus" I replied.

 

(* for those not familiar with anatomy, this is a muscle in the neck, usually associated with "pain in"!)

 

With the company split into three main categories - principal actors, Equity 40 and Community 60 - divided between 4 dressers - the ability to keep one's head when all around were losing theirs, was the challenge of the day. During the most difficult part of the Season - the technical week - costumes were modified, altered, adapted as the Designer watched from the auditorium. It is sometimes difficult to realise how one tiny thing can change "the look" of the production from a costume point of view - sometimes just changing an accessory, the colour of coat, another pair of trousers can mean all the difference. Dressers had to write their plots at this time - knowing where to be at any given moment to be of the most assistance to "their" artists. Noses well and truly buried inside notebooks full of scribbles....go to Dr F 1 assist with cloaks, listen for tannoy call for water, go to SR assist with water for rain scene, go straight back to F6, then go to SL for sashes, pre-set army helmet and jacket under stage (don't forget to find fake money and place), you now have 10 minutes to grab a coffee, go straight to ............................. etc etc etc

 

Performances are a doddle compared with tech weeks. Once that half hour call has been announced it is like a train getting up speed - and from then on there is only the journey to enjoy.

 

Highlights of the performances had to be the rain and the blood! Here was this stellar cast and the dressers had to soak them ! Paul Shearer (Cina) renamed the two girls soaking him "The Drench-Wenches"! Blood - glorious blood - oh it doesn't half get everywhere. Made from a secret recipe this blood has to be made up into small sachets and secreted upon the person who is about to be "done in". In many theatres the blood is put into condoms as they work perfectly - although I have never had the courage to ask whether regular, sensitive, or extra-sensitive is best!

 

Mr Julius Caesar (John Shrapnel)had the Santa Claus sackful of sachets upon his person - from Casca to Brutus it had to pour forth and convince, scare, worry those sitting out front (between the dairy milk chocolates and dreams of an interval brandy), sometimes it poured for England, sometimes it half-poured and sometimes it just got stroppy!

 

The ceremonial sashes of the Senate scene have to go down in theatre history as being one of the simplest, yet most effective, of all costume designs. The Senate dressed as sharp city politicians exited ( as Caesar is warned to be beware of so many )- to appear shortly swathed in the ceremonial sashes of deepest black slashed with burgundy, purple and saffire. The reality in the wings resembled the first day of the Harrods sale. First through the wings, led by his dresser, flew John Shrapnel for his quick change, then Mark Anthony (Ralph Fiennes) who had an almost leisurely time, but for the rest it was a line up of 3 to a dresser as we fought to find ties and press-studs in the dim light of the wings (even funnier when the working lights went out over several performances ). Some artists knelt, some twirled to assist their dresser, some dressers ran round the artist as if they were a mulberry bush, but the highlight came when both dresser and artist turned round simultaneously!!! Follow that carousel! Quick changes are easy to experienced dressers - but even then there is an unheard sigh of relief once they are over!

 

The army took over the second part of the performance. The wings were full of soldiers watching soldiers on stage, watching soldiers sitting in the wings! The smoke at times was so thick it was difficult to see who was who - and once the performances got under way there were, for various reasons, a few changes of cast. We often had to find a costume for somewhat almost at last minute. We thought we had done so well with one member of the Equity 40 until he repeated that Simon Russell- Beale had growled the comment "You are supposed to be in MY army" - oops - wrong costume!" We consoled ourselves that no one could see through the smoke !

 

The most commonly heard words during the run of this production were

"have you seen my...."

"I haven't got my..."

"Where are my socks?"

"I'm sure I left my...." "Where have you put my...." "Has anyone seen my..." "Where are my socks"

"I'm sure I put my ............ in my ............ " "Where are my socks" "Has anyone seen my socks" "I've only got one sock"

"Oh I took my socks home last night ....do you have any more" - followed by

"I've found them"... followed by the person at the next table saying

"I've lost my socks, they were here a minute ago..."

"have you got his socks ?"

 

Final entry on dressers' costume notes - "go home"! We loved you all.

Kristina Kashvili-Michael Copyright 2005