Magazine article The Spectator

In the Firing Line

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Firing Line

Article excerpt

Henrietta Bredin goes backstage at the Royal Opera House and finds a stash of weaponry

I am standing outside a heavily reinforced metal door somewhere in the furthest flung recesses of the labyrinthine corridor-tangle backstage at the Royal Opera House. A painted shield has the word Armoury picked out on it in gold lettering and next to a no smoking warning is a sign saying 'No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again'. The door swings ponderously open to reveal the possessor of this somewhat macabre sense of humour, chief armourer Rob Barham. He is not a small man and his lair seems to fit around him like a tortoise shell, leaving him the minimum of space in which to manoeuvre.

Built-in shelves bristle with tiny models of Napoleonic cavalry, replica pistols and revolvers hang from the walls, a slithering bundle of spears is propped up in a corner, row upon row of books and specialist magazines carry titles ranging from Women Warlords and Prussian Line Infantry 1792-1815 to Mastering the Samurai Sword and Arms and Armour of the English Civil Wars. Around a corner, under a neck-crickingly low ceiling, his two colleagues Kate Bebbington and Zoe Kreuger are busy punching holes into thick straps of leather to make sword belts.

There are only two other theatres in the UK with working armouries, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (think of all those history plays).

At the Royal Opera House, Barham and his team have to provide the most extraordinary range of kit, from ceremonial tribal daggers for Aida to lightweight rapiers for the dancers in Romeo and Juliet; from longbows for William Tell to authentic-looking firearms for Puccini's La fanciulla del West, whose heroine, Minnie, learns the hard way that you can't get a man with a gun.

Attempting to take all this in, I nearly knock a brass-handled knife on to the floor. There are in fact two of them, almost identical, one with a retracting blade, for Tosca to plunge harmlessly into Scarpia's ribs as he plots to have his wicked way with her. Barham's working on that one as the spring broke during rehearsal, causing the blade (safely blunted) to fly across the room, causing a combination of hilarity and alarm. Safety is absolutely paramount with all the weapons in his care.

Anyone working in the armoury department has to undergo a police check and at least one member of the team has to attend any performance involving weaponry. Breaking blades was an ongoing problem with Romeo and Juliet, where the warring Capulets and Montagues have a carefully choreographed stage fight which depends for its effect not only on the spectacle but also on the sound of clashing swords. 'Steel blades get hairline cracks and they can fracture, ' says Barham.

'With dancers on stage and musicians in the pit, we obviously can't have that. It took a long period of trial and error to get the right solution. We use fencing epees now, the same type that are used in competitions, but made out of a dralon-aluminium mix that's light to carry and makes a good ringing sound. Also it dents, but doesn't snap too easily.'

The most famous sword in opera is probably Nothung, in Wagner's Ring. Pulled from the trunk of a tree by Siegmund in Die Walkure, its broken pieces have to be forged together again by his son Siegfried during the next opera in the cycle. Barham is now on his fourth complete Ring and says that the most recent one caused a fair number of headaches for both him and his colleagues in the props department, who were responsible for a crystal sword - based on one from the Lord of the Rings films - that took months to perfect. …

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