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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Behind the Scenes with the Queen of Crowns

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear, starring Antony Sher and directed by Gregory Doran, is at the BAM Harvey Theater from April 7 to 29.

By Christian Barclay

The RSC's archival collection includes more than 2,500 costumes, props, and designs dating from the 1800s to today. It offers an overview of the way theatrical performances have changed over time and how different directors and designers have approached Shakespeare’s work.

Few costumes carry the power of a crown––the gilded accessory that separates a commoner from a king. Kate Freshwater, the company’s senior milliner, talks about the creation of the company’s royal headwear.

How many crowns does the RSC have in its archive and when was the first one made?
We have 60 crowns in our special archive collection––in addition to the ones stored in our costume store, where there are numerous other crowns from past productions. The oldest one we know the confirmed date of was made in 1949 for a production of Macbeth. It was made for Diana Wynyard, who played Lady Macbeth.

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC

When designing a crown, how does the process begin?
The designer on each production has a vision of what they want their costumes to look like, including the crowns. So at the start of the process we discuss what is needed, including what materials we already have and what we may need to get in. We need quite a lot of information, such as how it will be worn and what processes it goes through (e.g. Does it get dropped or thrown as part of the action of the show?). For instance, in our current production of Macbeth, the crown needs to be worn by nine different people on stage, which is challenging.

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC

So lots of questions need to be answered before “the make” starts. When we get to a certain point in building it, we will check in again with the designer before we get ready for fitting it on the actor. (All RSC actors have a lot of measurements taken, including head size!) We also need to know if the actor will be wearing a wig or hair piece as this obviously has to be factored into the design.

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC

What are the differences in crowns for queens and crowns for kings?
There is not always a difference, as they would be passed down by generations and worn by both sexes. But ladies’ crowns tend to usually be a bit finer and more decorative and tend to perch on a wig. Mens’ crowns are often more sturdy, and fit lower down around their forehead.

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC

What kinds of materials, metals, and embellishments are used?

The base is usually wire, or sometimes buckram or rhino flex––which is very starchy fabric that you can mold with heat. This makes the basic shape. Then we can build in either leather or brass shim––a thin sheet of brass or sometimes pewter. The other option is to use thicker brass which is then cut on the laser cutter at our workshops and soldered together. It can then be decorated with metal pressings/settings or jewels.

We have made light leather crowns which are the easiest to manipulate; the heaviest are the ones made of thick metal. The metal pressings are decorative pieces that can be riveted or soldered on, and we also sometimes use decorative filigree bandings which are quite lightweight.

Photo by Andrew Fox, courtesy RSC

How was Lear’s flower crown created and how does its design reflect his mind state at the time?
A base of cane was twined into a wreath shape and then fake flowers and herbs were created and added in. These include what is referred to in the text of Lear (see below) so it is as faithful as possible, as we like to pay close attention to detail in what we make. We specially created the nettles and burdock leaves (made by printing on to silk), as well as the bramble twig that Lear picks out of the wreath in the scene. This had to be magnetized so it stays securely in the crown as Antony moves around, but can be picked out easily by him as part of the action.

Alack, 'tis he: why, he was met even now
As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn. A century send forth;
Search every acre in the high-grown field,
And bring him to our eye.

Stitch in Time helps the RSC restore and redevelop its Costume Workshop, supporting its skilled costume makers with state-of-the-art workshops and facilities.

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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