WhatsOnStage Logo
Home link

Ten great things in The Play's The Thing

From David Tennant's Hamlet t-shirt to Judi Dench's Lady Macbeth dress, the RSC's director of events and exhibitions talks through ten of the best items in the company's new permanent exhibition

The Royal Shakespeare Company's new exhibition The Play's The Thing runs in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and reveals some of the little-known stories of the people, plays and events since the company began.

The family-friendly exhibition throws light on many things you may never have known about the RSC including how they use cereals to create scabs and how actors vomit onstage as well as displaying costumes worn by legends like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. Here, the RSC director of events and exhibitions Geraldine Collinge picks out ten gems.

Paul Robeson as Othello in 1959 and (left) the robe he wore.
© RSC /Angus McBean

Paul Robeson's costume from Othello, 1959

The reason I've picked this is less about the costume - although the costume is gorgeous - and more about the fact that Paul Robeson played Othello at the RSC. It wasn't the first time he had played the role - in the '30s he became the the first black actor to play Othello since Ira Aldridge. But his turn at the RSC was symbolic of race relations more broadly. Robeson was significant figure in the Civil Rights movement in America and had been blacklisted by the US authorities. To have a black man playing Othello was really important in the history of the RSC - it paved the way for Paapa Essiedu playing Hamlet.

Patrick Stewart in The Tempest
© RSC/ photo by Manuel Harlan

Patrick Stewart's costume from The Tempest, 2006

This costume is amazing. It's all furs and bear skin and you really get a sense of the coldness of the Arctic - which is where this production was set. One of the things we want to convey in the exhibition is how we reinterpret the same play again and again. This production was directed by Rupert Goold and was a really bold way of reading the play.

Dress worn by Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth and the cloak work by Ian McKellen as Macbeth in 1976

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench's costumes from Macbeth, 1976

This was a very famous production in The Other Place. The production went right back to the basics of the language. It was set in candlelight, which is how we've presented it in the exhibition. Judi Dench's dress is so austere, while Ian McKellen's is very miltary and his buttons really stand out. You get a sense of the dark interior sensation of that production from these costumes.

David Tennant as Hamlet
© Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

David Tennant's costume from Hamlet, 2008

David Tennant was a very modern Hamlet and what's great about the way we show the t-shirt in the exhibition is that there's an interactive element. You get to hear David talking about his approach to the character. The costume carries lots of meaning, but it isn't a beautiful hand-sewn skirt - it's just a t-shirt. The production was about facades and mirrors and what lies beneath so the fact that you can see his ribs on the t-shirt is significant.

The dress worn by Vivienne Leigh as lady Macbeth in 1955
© RSC/Angus McBean

Vivien Leigh's costume from Macbeth, 1955

This is a little like Tennant's Hamlet in that Vivien Leigh's Lady Macbeth costume has her belly button and rib cage painted onto the outside of her dress. It's a beautiful green costume and was meant to be figure hugging. Back then you didn't have Lycra, so painting ribs on was a way of making it look tight.

Snake prop from Love's Labour's Lost in 2008
© RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Snake prop from Love's Labour's Lost, 2006

This is a really massive snake that they had a fight with in Love's Labour's Lost which also starred David Tennant. But it has an interesting story behind it because you can see how we used a print pattern to create it which demonstrates the sort of work our props workshop does.

The Lion's Head from Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Barry Stanton's lion mask, from A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1970

This the mask Barry Stanton wore as Snug in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a beautiful wooden mask and what I love about it is the fact that it was actually made by Barry. Brook worked with his company as an ensemble and they made props. It seems so right for the Rude Mechanicals.

The prompt book from The Wars of the Roses

The War of the Roses prompt book, 1963

The Wars of the Roses was very famous for the way it presented a very edited version of Shakespeare's plays. To begin with people wondered what Peter Hall and John Barton were doing by cutting Shakespeare's work so radically, but it was very well received. So this is the prompt book, which is the copy of the script that everybody worked off and it has big chunks of text crossed out.

The RSC's First Folio

First Folio, 1623

Our first folio is special. It was owned by a student called Samuel Madden in 1705 and he used it for performance, like we would a script now. He has put little pointy fingers next to parts of the text he thinks are important. A little bit like Facebook likes.

The Chandos portrait being installed in The Play's The Thing exhibition
© RSC/Photo by Andrew Fox

Chandos portrait, c 1600 - 1610

This has been loaned from the National Portrait Gallery. It was the very first item in their collection and they've only loaned it once before. We have it as part of the exhibition till 18 December. Like everything around Shakespeare, it's still open to debate, but generally this is thought of as the portrait which is actually him. It was done during his lifetime and he looks brilliant: he has an earring and looks a little bit like a pirate.

The Play's The Thing runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the Swan Wing.