The Abbey Theatre’s offstage costume drama

In the costume department, razor blades and bird seed are never far away. And what’s with all that vodka they have?

Niamh Lunny: before she starts designing, she reads the script once for pleasure, then again to get a handle on the characters. Photograph: Eric Luke

Niamh Lunny: before she starts designing, she reads the script once for pleasure, then again to get a handle on the characters. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 01:00

There is no gold star on her door, a long narrow space with an industrial sewing machine to the fore. As head of the costume department of the Abbey Theatre, Niamh Lunny – a niece of musician Dónal and a cousin of violinist Cora – plays a supporting role to the drama onstage.

Her desk is hidden to the rear, piled high with costume reference books: The Edwardian Modiste by Frances Grimble; Everyday Fashions 1909- 1920 as Pictured in Sears Catalogs; and Corsets: Historical Patterns and Technique – reading material for the theatre’s forthcoming production, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

Steps lead from her desk up to an ultra-bright glazed area where what she calls “the dark art of breakdown” takes place. It’s a term those in the costume department use for the abuse they give clothing to help an actor better inhabit a role.

A mannequin covered in black paint with splattered and razored plastic is where the metamorphosis begins. The shelves are filled with lots of acrylic paint applied to fabric using fine art principles, box and mandolin cheese graters, an industrial sander, wire brushes, bleach, sandpaper and razor blades to cut and distress.

There are stones to fill pockets, to weigh a garment down and all manner of shoe and fabric dyes. A bottle of glycerine is used to make clothes look greasy or to create sweat stains, Lunny says.

“Add nail polish and you can make something look like it’s covered in wet bloodstains.”

Fuller’s earth, an ingredient used in face masks, is used to build soil-like texture on to costumes. Bags of bird seed are on hand to create saggy boobs and big bellies.

No one in Heartbreak House is as they appear, says Lunny. “First impressions are misleading.” Her costumes have to support that. As well as designing costumes for the show, she shops for ideas in the company’s cavernous warehouse in Finglas, a place where they have the exterminators on speed dial to keep the moth population under control.


Light-filled corridor

On the top floor of the theatre is a light-filled corridor where about 5m-6m of costumes hang on rails. These have been called in from Finglas. The windows are UV-coated to protect the garments from sun damage. From here you can see the rooftops of Dublin 1.

However, since Irish canon is full of tenement dwellers and peasants, there are only so many ready-made costumes she can pull. Many have to be made from scratch by her swat team in the cutting room. It is the only theatre in Ireland that has access to such a facility 365 days a year.

To finish the look, a corridor is lined with cupboards containing an Imelda Marcos number of shoe styles from which she can choose. More line the boot room; a few doors down is the fabric room, haberdashery heaven with metres of cloth sourced from London, Paris and a company called Fucotex outside Munich.

Before Lunny starts designing, she reads the script once for pleasure, then again to read the characters, “to find out who they are, what you want to tell the audience and what you don’t want to tell them. The silhouette will tell the audience when the production is set.”

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