Julian Gilbert in the RSC Armoury. Photo by Suzanne Worthington © RSC

Behind an ordinary terrace of cottages in Stratford lies a maze of little workshops and alleys reminiscent of the artisans' quarters that would once have existed in every medieval town. Here, experts practise crafts that have all but disappeared from our 21st century world - millinery, jewellery, corset-making, dyeing, cobbling. Hidden in these workshops, Julian Gilbert and his colleagues work as the talented team responsible for the RSC's armoury.

There can't be many theatres, even worldwide, that use armour so frequently that a whole department is devoted to its design and construction. This workshop is never short of work, maintaining all the swords, guns, armour, and boots needed to stage Shakespeare's many duels and battles.

Much of the work is done on site, and with the help of a vacuum-forming machine, Julian and his team produce breastplates, gauntlets and any other armour needed. They also produce some less likely items. They have become experts at making even a designer's strangest concepts come alive. For The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the armoury had to adapt a pair of industrial stilts(used by painters) for the role of the giant. Boots were built around the stilts to hide the actor's real feet and make the costume as realistic as possible.

As Julian says, 'A lot of what we do is developed as we go along. We're often asked to do quite strange things. We've done quite a few pig's heads over the years... the latest were for Cymbeline.' The masks were produced using a cast of a real pig's head. Julian notes that this was quite a messy process. He also has a mounted hoof on the wall, which was used to cast the hooves worn by Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

In fact, it was through footwear that Julian first came to the department. He was employed (after art school) to maintain the boots and other leatherwear in the store. The head of department left soon after, and though he is unlikely to admit it, Julian has been running the Armoury since 1967. Although there are now courses which teach many of the construction methods the Armoury team use, getting a job can be a case of being in the right place at the right time.

The workshop itself is a long and low room with specially-built racks for moulds and the vast collection of boots and shoes that the team also maintains. Although an anvil takes a prominent position in the workshop, it isn't possible to forge metal on site, due to the proximity of the Costume department and their stacks of cloth! Instead, we have a long-standing relationship with a local blacksmith. For example, for the 2004 production of Macbeth, our blacksmith made a complicated aluminium trick spear - it was made in segments which concertina inside each other, so when the spear is pushed in, it looks as if it has been driven through the actor's body.

Julian points out that the Armoury's weapons are specially made for the stage. Most swords are still made of high-quality steel, although in recent productions (and following Lord of The Rings film-making trends) realistic-looking rubber daggers have also been used. Other specially designed stage weapons are sourced from a specialist supplier in Chesterfield. These swords are made without an edge, and their light-weight construction makes them easier to work with.

More of the Armoury stock is stored in a loft upstairs. Here stacks of (artificially) rusting helmets teeter next to a pile of rapiers, broadswords, and other sharp-looking metal objects. The helmets and hardware all look similar, but Julian explains that most productions are set in a very specific period. Designers aim to get the details right, so Julian guides them towards the swords or armour correct for the period in which the production is set.

For scenes requiring armies of fighting characters, such as those featured in Richard III and Troilus and Cressida, it's often difficult finding enough weapons to match. For example, one scene in Dominic Cooke's 2004 production of Macbeth requires15 matching sabres. It's not necessarily possible to get all 15 to perfectly match, but a happy compromise is usually reached. As Julian says, 'What's important is to get the right 'feel'.'

Many shows borrow historical details from different periods to create an eclectic 'period' of their own. While Cymbeline would usually have Julian digging for all the Roman sandals in stock, the 2003 production featured the Romans wearing white Birkenstock sandals instead. A period production of Hamlet will call for swords, armour and daggers - the 'full monty' as far as the Armoury is concerned - but in the 2001 production directed by Steven Pimlott, guns rather than swords figured most prominently.

Many of the RSC's productions have a modern setting, so the Armoury needs to reflect this in the weapons it stocks. In order to use guns in RSC productions, Julian has to hold both a gun dealer's certificate and a shot-gun licence. Things get complicated when shows go on tour - the local police must be informed and the licence is transferred to the Tour Manager, who is responsible for the weapons at the show venue. With plays such as the1995 production of Julius Caesar touring schools and leisure centres rather than 'proper' theatres, there must always be a lockable gun cabinet for safe storage.

Like the rest us at the RSC, the Armoury is caught up in a continuous cycle: as one show is being prepared, another is already on stage. Julian and the team have to keep one eye on the present, maintaining the weapons and boots on stage in Stratford, while looking ahead with designers and directors and preparing for the next production. They never know what they may have to produce next, but they meet every new challenge with enthusiasm and commitment to getting the job done well. It is this ever-changing, always-moving cycle that keeps the job interesting, even for nearly 40 years...

Fixing a fight

Every time Romeo and Tybalt duel, Macbeth stabs Duncan, Gloucester is blinded or Hamlet and Laertes fight, a whole cast of RSC staff are involved. From the designer and blacksmith, to the fight co-ordinator and actor, getting a fight right is truly a group effort:

  • Director and Designer decide on the period in which the play will be set.

  • Julian works with the weapon designer to look at weapons available. They decide what they can re-use, and what need to be made.

  • The actors are cast and, with the Fight Director, Julian fits them out with practise weapons, so their use becomes second nature.

  • The Fight Director coaches the actors through each carefully choreographed fight.

  • The show opens. The Armoury team maintains the footwear, armour and weapons which can take a real battering every night.

  • When the play finishes, Julian keeps back items he knows will be useful in the future. The swords go back to their racks, the boots to their stacks and the best-looking breast plates and helmets are sent to Hire Wardrobe.

Photo by Suzanne Worthington shows Julian Gilbert in the RSC Armoury © RSC

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Teaching Shakespeare