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Costume News Theatre

Royal Shakespeare Company: Costuming a gender-swapped The Taming of the Shrew

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The Royal Shakespeare Company is known worldwide as being THE go-to company for the most cutting edge productions of the bard’s plays.

Their latest offering of The Taming of the Shrew is no different. Director Justin Audibert’s production of Shakespeare’s fierce, energetic comedy of gender is turned on its head to offer a fresh perspective on its portrayal of hierarchy and power. This production takes the play and sets it in a matriarchal world where women hold all the cards.

The usually female roles, such as Katherine and Bianca (Bianco) have now become male characters – played by Joseph Arkley and James Cooney, while the usually male roles Petruchio (Petruchia) and Gremio (Gremia) have become female characters played by Claire Price and Sophie Stanton.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

This new production, still designed with the period very much in mind, sees Costume Designer Hannah Clark make some brilliant creative choices in approaching character through clothing.

We wanted to know more about Hannah’s work on the show and the creative process she went through alongside Justin Audibert to create this gender swapped version of The Taming of the Shrew.

Hannah took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with us backstage at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon about the production and her costume design on the show.

Can you tell us about the design process for the piece?

H:  We knew that it was going to be very late 16th century and we knew we were going to swap the genders so those two things were set in stone from the outset.  Then I just started researching by looking at paintings primarily, original source material. With the most powerful elders within the piece being women rather than men, it meant finding a logic in terms of the society and in terms of the clothing.  Because we’re talking about 1590s and we’re talking about high Elizabethan, we had these images of this hugely powerful, imposing woman at the height of power.  Justin (the director) and I discussed those images, focusing on the scale and power, and the context within the Elizabethan era.  From there I start piecing research images together, drawing ideas and collaging – figuring out silhouettes and how they could work.

How does the costume design reflect the gender reversal?  

H:   Queen Elizabeth was prominent in my thinking as the piece is really about women in power.  Another reference that Justin picked up on quite a bit was Margaret Thatcher. It’s maybe not a coincidence that during the 1980s, when we first had our first female Prime Minister, you get this masculine take on a feminine silhouette. With Elizabeth, you had large shoulders and big puffy sleeves, particularly toward the end of her reign, so you have a female power dressing.  Elizabethan power dressing. It felt like an interesting starting point for us and we built this framework that, the larger the shoulders, the more powerful the character within our world.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Also scale, and taking space. Particularly the women in farthingales. They take up a lot of space and there’s something aggressively powerful about that, something which isn’t often instinctively female.  Women are often told to take up the smallest amount of space as possible and, what’s wonderful about this period, is that you can create a huge, fabulous dress and it does take up space.  They really own the stage and the men have to get out of the way to get around the women.  

In contrast, we started exploring softening the masculine silhouette.  Making it less sharp, softer, sloping shoulders and softer, rounder breeches.  Often you choose with Elizabethan pieces to create these lovely v-shaped men’s shaped costumes, which have these fabulous, very powerful shoulders.  We deliberately went against that, softening and feminising the men and pumping up the women.  We also explored this idea that, if it was a matriarchal society, then the fashions were guided by a feminine eye, and we also wanted to feminise the men a little bit.  So we took this idea and put them all (the men) in embroidered florals and to gave them this very long and very soft hair.  It was an idea of masculinity through a weirdly feminine lens.  We were also looking to have a slightly sickly feeling about it.  Because, I think in The Taming of the Shrew, it is the society that allows this kind of abuse to happen, so we were keen not to say well it’s a matriarchy so everything is fine and everything is alright because women are in power.  Actually there are things that are messed up about that in the same way as in a patriarchy. Perhaps men would be similarly objectified in that world.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

We also had a lot of fun with Kate’s wedding outfits, with the huge ruff, creating a male costume but one that is slightly sickeningly feminised. Also with Bianco’s costumes – the florals.  There is something very feminine about both of them. 

Also, we weren’t saying that it was women dressed up as men.  We were saying that it was women being women so it’s not like taking on another gender. Petruchia is always a woman but she is a powerful, eccentric and ultimately quite a domineering woman and sort of forces her husband into submission.  It wasn’t so much about subverting gender, it was just about subverting the power balance between the genders.  It feels like there has been a lot of Shakespeare that has played with gender in that way, and a lot of all male productions and all female productions where they flip gender all over the place and it’s just about taking on character.  Whereas this was much more about holding onto the masculine and the feminine but just allowing them to take on different attributes.

How did you work with the director for the initial concept?

H:    Some directors are much more collaborative and everything is very much up in the air and the middle emerges out of that conversation between you and the director.  Others have a very clear idea of the way they want to approach a piece.  I think Justin sits somewhere in the middle.  Because we knew it was 1590s, we knew there was a gender swap happening but then everything was sort of up for grabs within that really.  You meet to talk about the initial concept and then there’s a going away and gathering of research material and thinking about the ways in which we can approach it.  Then meeting and discussing all that material, going away working a bit further and coming back and meeting more to discuss.  So it’s definitely a collaborative effort that evolves over a few months.  

An interesting note about this project was that it wasn’t cast until after the costumes were designed so there is a bit of working blind because you don’t know what performer you are designing for.  In opera, often the singers are cast before I’m even brought on board.  So it’s very clear who you are working with and you can figure out what might work with them.  Whereas in theatre, casting is often much much later and, particularly with costumes like this, because of the time it takes to make them and because we had so many things specifically woven for us and embroidered for us, we had to start that process before the casting had taken place.  As an example, we really lucked out with Claire Price (Petruchia) who really suits green, and with her hair colouring, a sort of strawberry blonde, it looks fabulous.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

What are the constraints when designing costumes for an RSC production?

H: Here at the RSC, the workrooms are just fabulous with a breadth of skill that have people who can do leatherwork and dying and millinery. You want to throw everything at your design to utilise all those skills.  

We have a healthy budget for costume, very much so for theatre.  Particularly with the decision that this production would be period, it was known that we would spend a bit on costume.  But I think you have to be clever with how you spend your budget.  If you decide to spend a lot of money on one outfit, then maybe everything else is going to pale in comparison. Although here, because the skill range is so great and the costume department really love working on period costumes, they really get to use all of their skills, so money is the main constraint. However, there is a timeframe as well.  It’s a busy costume department so they’re already working on the next show.  There’s a limit to how much you can ask for and there’s a technical sign off on the show as well. 

What happens when you see something on stage and you think, oh no that’s not working? 

H:  Well, you look at it with your supervisor and you have a conversation and think what’s going wrong here?  And try and figure it out between you. If it’s to do with the way a costume is constructed, you would normally get the maker in that worked on that costume and you would all look at it together and say, OK, this just doesn’t seem to be sitting quite right. What can we do to change this?  I think if you’re making a quantity of costumes from scratch, inevitably there will be a few things that you get on stage and you go crikey what were we thinking?!  OK then, we need to shift this or shift that.  You all figure it out together.  And I think that’s quite important because I think you get the best work out of people if they feel a sense of ownership over things that they’re working on.  It certainly feels important to me to not just send a note back saying change this. It’s far better to have their knowledge, especially if they’ve made it.  They’ll have suggestions of how to improve things or they’ll want to look at it and go, I think maybe if we did this, then this might help.  So it’s always a collaboration.  I think 90% of the job is collaborating, probably more so than designing.  I shouldn’t admit it, but I think it’s true.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

When did you start on this project?  How long does it take from you initially being brought on board to your designs on stage?

H:  I think that we started designing last spring, and rehearsals started in October.  Because the show is in rep the rehearsal period is quite long.  And the designs were delivered in the summer before.  So a reasonably long time, although it’s shorter for me because I do quite a bit of opera.  Often we’re handing in designs a year before something is going into rehearsals there, so often it can be two years or more that you are beginning working on things.  It’s a much longer time.  

What was the reasoning behind the colour palette you’ve used?

H:   All of the colours can be naturally attained, and that was something I was really keen on.  I think that’s from the practice of doing period shows and on some of them realising ooh actually that colour feels really non-period. You’re not sure why and then you realise, actually it wouldn’t have been attainable with natural dyes. There’s a synthetic edge to some modern colours which is only achievable with chemicals and synthetic dyes, and also with synthetic fabrics as well.  I was also really keen to have this eccentric and playful palette for Petruchia’s servants but to make sure that, even though those colours did pop, they would still have been attainable from natural dyes.  We still have that inherently period feel so we went for all those yellowy greens which are very period and feel natural.  

With this being a period costume production, did you have to modify any of the costumes or undergarments so that they were more comfortable for stage?

H: Yes, definitely the farthingales.  We probably would have used more farthingales than we have but there were certainly some characters that the physicality of the performance just meant that it would have been too difficult for them.  So we went for huge bum rolls instead which are much more rough and tumble and will stay up.  A lot of this company have been really brilliant as a lot of them have never worn period costume before and they all have really embraced it, particularly in terms of movement on stage.  If you’re working with a movement director who hasn’t worked much with period costumes before, they can get into a complete pickle because you realise that if you have a train, you can’t walk backwards.  You have to turn and allow the dress to swing out and Lucy (Lucy Cullingford), the movement director, has been really fabulous at absolutely embracing that and she’s really found a really lovely way with it, and lots of the company have as well.  Amelia (Amelia Donkor who plays Hortensia) particularly, as soon as she put it on and got on stage, all of her posture changed and you could tell she was really enjoying owning this large dress and sensing what it did on stage and how she could move and get the most out of it.  It was lovely, really nice.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Has the scale of the costumes presented any difficulties?

H:  Sometimes you can really hit on problems with farthingales with actors saying I can’t do this and I can’t do that.  I think if you can embrace it and work with it and figure out how to get the most out of it, then it can be a lot of fun and enhance the performance rather than restricting it.  However, they’ve been a lovely company for that, all been really game. They’re also all corseted and that’s quite a thing to get used to if you’ve never performed in a corset before. Pretty much everyone is in a corset.  With it being 16th century, they’re quite flat chested.  And because everything is very high necked, it’s not that busty look.  It’s actually about pulling in the waist because of the bum rolls and the farthingales.   It’s about getting the biggest difference between the size of the waist and the size of the shoulders.  

How do you take quick changes into account when there’s corsetry involved?

H:   Most of them stay in the corset throughout so that’s something that doesn’t change.  But there have been quite a few things that have had to be quick changed. For example, we have one dress that we had to alter which had one of those bodices with lacing up the front and then has a piece that comes over and conceals the lacing at the side.  That was just taking too long so we had to swap that for almost like kind of boot hooks and the whole thing had to be looped across.  All of that you try to preempt as much as possible before you get into tech, but you do get into tech and you have to problem. So, you solve it and figure out ways to make stuff quicker, maybe change things to elastic, for example. 

How do you feel when you have to compromise on the practical versus the aesthetic?

H: I think sometimes you do have to turn a blind eye slightly to alterations in order to make quick changes happen. I don’t think there is anything here that has been drastically quick changed. On some productions though, sometimes you look at things up closely, this huge piece of velcro looks horrific and you freak out! Then its on stage and you can’t see the velcro because it’s all concealed.

Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

However, it’s part of the job.  As long as you can’t see it, I’m fine with it.  I think in part because I did so much work at the Globe, which is obviously in daylight with people up close, my leaning is always towards having real buttons, making everything as real as possible.  But the reality is that stage costumes – and they are seen pretty close up here – but it’s seen under stage lighting, and people do have to be able to get in and out of them quickly.  They’re costumes, not clothes and I have to remind myself of that.  Providing everything is done sensitively enough for it not to be glaringly obvious when the costume is on stage, it’s fine.

Do you see any challenges that need addressing within the costume community?

H:   Although this isn’t specific to costume, I think arts education is less accessible to people, because it’s quite expensive to study now. It’s healthy to have as diverse as possible an industry. The more expensive it becomes to study subjects within the creative industries, it almost feels like a kind of luxury in a way.  I think of myself and I think gosh if I was going to come out of university with all that debt would I have studied stage design.  I’m not sure I would.  I think that’s something in terms of the arts in general. But hopefully that will change. We have to be optimistic.

Hannah Clark is a London based set and costume designer working in opera, theatre and dance. She trained in theatre design at Nottingham Trent University and Central School of Speech and Drama. She was a winner of the 2005 Linbury Biennial Prize for stage design.

The Taming of the Shrew runs at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Until 31 August 2019 and then tours across the UK 25th September 2019 – 4th April 2020.

You can also catch the show broadcast live in Cinemas 5th June 2019

For more information on the show and to book tickets click here.

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