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


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.”

This starts with the foundation garments. “Having underwear to fit the actress informs her of how she will breathe, sit, walk and talk, which in turn affects her ability to project.”

The costumes have to capture the mood of the era. The play is in a time when Europe was on the cusp of war and everything “is in flux, culturally and fashionably”, she says.

“Manners and etiquette are changing. This is the start of the modern era and the democratisation of society. It is an unmooring. There is more freedom but some, like Nurse Guinness, played by Barbara Brennan, are unsure and choose to remain rooted in the past. Hence the Victorian-era corset that she wears.”

In contrast, Hesione Hushabye, played by Kathy Kiera Clarke, is “uncorseted”, quite an avant-garde move in 1914. Lunny pictures her as “exotic, free, a bird of paradise in harem pants”, but actor Clarke has other ideas. She feels the character should be uncorseted because she doesn’t care and is was keen to follow Shaw’s stage directions and wear a black velvet gown.

They reach a compromise with a bias-cut silk black velvet gown, open at the sides to show her lack of undergarments. Concerned that she might “do a Janet Jackson” on stage, the costume department sew two silk chiffon modesty side panels to anchor her.

There is a lot of characterisation through costume. Don Wycherley plays Alfred Mangan, an older guy whom Lunny pictures as being wizened, thin and mean but who Wycherley feels is “a much bigger, shouty man who occupies a lot of space on stage and takes his jacket off a lot, which was technically wrong for the period”.

They get over this by making him suffer from hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, which is where the bottle of glycerine comes in. To give him girth, Wycherly wears a fat suit made of wadding and micro-mesh.

The actors have to get up every night and own their roles. The costume department’s job is to support them, says Lunny. The process is collaborative. Costumes have to be hard-wearing. They can be worn 40-60 times over the course of a production and are taken on and off in a hurry.

Laundry duty must be a nightmare. Outside the windowless room, affectionately known as Le Petit Pompidou because of the silver ducting on view, is a sign that reads “No dying in the laundry room”.

Inside are two top-loading washing machines that can be opened mid-cycle to recover clothes if necessary.

The room also has two tumble dryers, but, if time is tight, the dripping item of clothing is hung in a hot box, a stand up industrial-looking static drying cupboard that every home should have. Silk cashmere can be bone dry in 20 minutes.

If there isn’t time to launder a costume between the matinee and evening shows, the offending garment is spritzed with vodka and popped in the hotbox. “The evaporating alcohol removes any offending odours and refreshes it,” says Lunny. She doesn’t recommend doing it every evening, but it does get them out of a bind.

“Defending the vodka receipts to the auditors is more difficult,” she laughs.

Heartbreak House is at the Abbey until September 13

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