It’s a little bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get,” says Alan Smith of his job.
A pig’s head takes pride of place on one of the cluttered benches in his dark workshop, while a hound’s skull peers down from a shelf. Both are fibreglass – for Smith is head of costume props, footwear and armoury at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he brings designers’ artistic visions to life.
He made Captain Hook’s hook for Wendy & Peter Pan and Miss Trunchbull’s prosthetic body for the original production of Matilda the Musical. A gold lamé bondage suit sticks in his mind, although he can no longer remember the show it was for.
“I’ve done some very strange things,” he admits.
Recent projects have included creating a leather ceremonial belt for Christopher Eccleston, who is playing the title character in the current production of Macbeth, and preparing frogs.
In this case, a frog is a piece of leather that holds a weapon to a belt. The frogs being used in Macbeth are usually for bayonets, but here are being worn with swords to complement the play’s contemporary staging.
Known within the RSC as the armoury, Smith’s three-person department – hidden in buildings opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – is home to hundreds of weapons, including swords, daggers, pole arms and spears, representing styles from the Carthaginian period to the present day.
Two types of sword are used in productions: dress swords, which are for decoration, and fighting swords. The RSC buys in and adapts dress swords – “You’d be amazed what you can buy off the internet,” says Smith – or reuses existing stock. If they arrive sharp, Smith will grind down and smooth the edges to make them safe.
Fighting swords, which have rounded edges, are specially made for the RSC. Whereas a lot of blades have a tang (the portion of the blade that extends into the handle), a fighting sword’s blade “goes all the way through the handle so there are no weak points”.
Smith, 49, has had only four swords break on stage during his 29 years in the armoury.
The swords in Macbeth are cavalry swords from the early 1900s with shortened blades. Smith has covered each basket hilt (the guard on the sword that protects the user’s arm) with green leather so as to give the appearance of modern khaki. “
They look very similar to the ceremonial swords the military still use today,” he says.
Macbeth also features fighting machetes, originally made for last year’s Coriolanus, and rubber daggers similar to those available for self-defence and martial arts training. The latter are black, so Smith has sprayed the blades so they look like steel. When we meet, he has spent the day blunting kitchen knives for Macbeth. With Romeo and Juliet also on this year’s bill, it is “knife season” at the RSC.
Smith, whose armoury is soon to be revamped as part of a wider £8.7m redevelopment of the RSC’s costume workshop, most enjoys the problem-solving aspect of his job.
“I really like it when a designer comes in and says: ‘I’ve got this problem and I need to be able to fix it. How am I going to do this?’”
He shows me a video on his phone of a man cutting his arm. It is Doctor Faustus drawing blood so as to sign a pact with Lucifer. Smith built a small pipette of fake blood into the handle of an aluminium Stanley knife so that when the actor pushed the handle, it pushed the “blood” out of the pipette.
Safety is an important aspect of his job. The RSC owns “quite a few” firearms, which are stored in a secure area separate to the sword armoury, and Smith is responsible for training staff in their use.
“If a firearm is used in a show, I brief the actor using the firearm and everyone else in the scene,” he says. “I also work with the director and the stage management and the actors to block the scene so that it portrays what the director wants but is also safe.”
Smith joined the RSC in 1989, having spotted an advert for a trainee leather worker after failing his A-levels. He has been with the company ever since, meeting his wife Sue there when she worked in the ladies’ costume department.
He has lost count of the number of times he has worked on Macbeth.
“Mr Ecceleston, Roger Allam, I’ve got whatshisname, yeah him, him,” he says, running through actors aloud to try to reach a total.
But he doesn’t find his work repetitive.
“Every director and designer has a different idea of how they want to portray it,” he explains.
“There are certain things that you know are going to crop up again in every single production, because there’s the iconic moment. You know there’s going to be a skull in Hamlet because he talks to it, but how the skull will look, for example, you don’t know.”
In Macbeth, it is the ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ speech that stands out.
“You know there’s going to be some kind of knife,” says Smith. “Whether it’s an actual knife, whether it’s an image of a knife or whether it’s a projection of a knife… you know it’s going to be there. So there are some things that don’t change – but no two productions are ever exactly the same.”