Lion tails and other pieces of Shakespeare theatrical history for sale

A delighted Ms Shelley Bolderson with a coat made from the pages of a book. She bought the coat at Royal Shakespeare Company’s sale of costumes.
A delighted Ms Shelley Bolderson with a coat made from the pages of a book. She bought the coat at Royal Shakespeare Company’s sale of costumes. PHOTO: NYTIMES

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON • Have you ever wanted to step into the shoes of a great Shakespearean actor?

Over the weekend, shoppers in Shakespeare's birthplace, which is also the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, had a chance to walk away with a piece of theatrical history, as the legendary company held a sale of 15,000 costumes and other items.

By the time the sale opened at 9am last Saturday, a line snaked down the street; the first fans had arrived at 5pm the previous day to secure a spot.

Such patience was rewarded and customers emerged clutching treasures, from the sublime - period ballgowns, lace ruffs, fairy wings - to the ridiculous - gold lame lion tails and grotesque pig suits.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has the largest costume department in British theatre and it employs 30 staff, including experts in armour and millinery.

The sale was raising money for the company's Stitch In Time campaign, to renovate its costume workshop and to finance specialist apprenticeships.

About a third of its stock - items too worn or too specific to be reused - was on sale at bargain prices: from 50 pence (91 Singapore cents) for a fan to £30 (S$55) for a velvet cloak.

The lifespan of Royal Shakespeare Company costumes, recycled across productions and for up to 100 performances, is among reasons they are special, and every item has a sewn-in label identifying the actor who wore it last and in which show.

Beady-eyed rummagers could pick up Anita Dobson's grubby underskirt from The Merry Wives Of Windsor, or Joanna Vanderham's silver gown from Othello. One happy shopper claimed to have found a dress worn by Jane Asher.

It can be bittersweet, however. "What makes this so emotional for someone like me - I put on my first Royal Shakespeare Company costume in 1966 - are the name tags," said British actor Patrick Stewart, who fronted the Stitch In Time campaign.

"I already found one item worn by a dear friend of mine, long gone."

Indeed, among the armour, there was a breastplate with "Tim Pigott-Smith" written on a label; the British actor died in April.

Even stars of Stewart's calibre are not immune to feeling awe when taking on the mantle of acting giants. "I was once given a jacket which I did not really like," Stewart said, adding that he had then seen from the label that it had been worn by Paul Scofield, a British actor who died in 2008.

"So of course I wore it," he said. "Although it had to be cut down because Paul was a much taller actor than I was, in every sense."

Performers often highlight how vital costumes are.

"There were times when the costume had a significant impact on the work I would do on that character," Stewart said, recalling the transformative effect of a luxurious pale gray three-piece suit worn for a modern-dress Merchant Of Venice in 2011.

Outside, the public emerged enchanted with their hauls. Mr Jenkin Van Zyl, whose parents drove up from London so that he could fill their car, went on quite a spree: "I wear only theatre costumes," he said. "So I just came to top up, but I didn't realise how cheap and amazing the sale was going to be. I spent £800."

Ms Shelley Bolderson, from Cambridge, also wears costumes in her daily life.

She said she had been delighted to find a coat made from the pages of a book, created for the dancing satyrs in the 2009 production of The Winter's Tale. "I just hope it won't dissolve in the rain," she said.

The sale is also a godsend for amateur theatre groups. Ms Miriam Davies, from Stamford, is a costume designer for a company specialising in Shakespeare.

"You can't really miss something like this," she said. "Having Royal Shakespeare Company costumes is a special thing - it's history."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'Lion tails and other pieces of Shakespeare theatrical history for sale'. Subscribe