Whenever a theatre company does a production one of the first considerations is the costumes. Unless they are doing something like Steaming, with all the characters hanging around a Turkish bath draped in nothing but towels, a lot of thought and care must be taken to give those on stage appropriate dressing to show their character, station in life and relationship with the rest of the population.
In modern plays non-professional companies often raid the individual wardrobes of the company but in a period piece more work is needed. When the characters are in uniform the problem is greater.
Most military uniforms are expensive, with braid, gold buttons and other embellishments. If a known regiment is to be shown, then authenticity is also a consideration.
This is the tale of how one company is going about dressing an old work. Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria knows at least that it will repeat the G&S Operas so any new costumes will be used a number of times—but that also means that they must be sturdy enough for repeated use.
Over the years the Yeomen of the Guard uniforms in Victoria have either worn out or been destroyed in a fire. This problem it turns out it a recurring one. In 1949 the programme for Yeomen had a paragraph stating that the committee regrets that after exhaustive enquiries sufficient Yeomen uniforms were not obtainable so some have been dressed in other costumes of the period and the committee “craves your indulgence and trusts the omission will not detract unduly from the performance”.
While Yeomen allows for some of the male chorus to be citizens, we still need a core of Yeomen in the recognisable costume. How to go about obtaining them?
In 1887 W.S. Gilbert began to wrestle with the thought that he needed to come up with an idea for a new comic opera. The Mikado had been an amazing success and made a lot of money. Ruddigore, which followed it, by contrast had made only a small splash in the theatrical world (though Gilbert was later to say that it had made him £7,000 profit) so an idea which would be popular with the public and entice Sullivan, was needed. Sullivan was suffering a bout of bad health and the desire to do something different.
While waiting for a train one day at Uxbridge station, Gilbert’s eye fell on a poster advertising the Tower Furnishing Company with an illustration of the Tower of London. He decided that this would be an attractive setting and began work on The Tower Warder, which Sullivan declared to have “a pretty story, very human and funny too”. Once in rehearsal Gilbert renamed the work The Beefeater and it was close to the opening night when the title The Yeomen of the Guard was decided upon.
While all the costumes (assuming that the production remains faithful to its original setting) are Tudor in period, the Yeomen uniforms you might think are simply the familiar red outfits seen in many a book on British history. This is not so.
The first Yeomen wore green. Towards the end of the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians heirs were just about exhausted, young Henry Tudor was living in France, in fear of his life. His father was from an undistinguished Welsh family but his mother was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and younger son of Edward III. Margaret Beaufort was indomitable in her belief that her son was the true heir to the throne and eventually he invaded England and improbably won a battle against the much greater forces of Richard III, and became Henry VII. While in exile he was protected by a personal force of bodyguards who stayed close to him in battle. When he was crowned in Westminster Abbey his nearest soldiers were these men, to whom he gave the name, The Yeomen of the Guard. They were the only royal bodyguard, the first permanent armed body in the country and were entitled to stand nearest to the sovereign on state occasions.
Their everyday dress was russet cloth with a Tudor rose front and back. On state occasions their uniform was ‘damask white and green, goodly embroidered both on their breast before and also on their backs behind, with round garlands of vine branches, beset richly with spangles of silver and gilt in the middle a red rose, beaten with goldsmith’s work’.
I have often had the temptation to use this design for a production of The Yeomen of the Guard but apart from the fact that it would be way beyond any possible budget it would also completely confuse the audience.
The familiar red uniforms have changed over the years and directors and designers need to think of what period they want the opera set. The Tower of London was a royal palace and from time to time the Kings lived there and were guarded by The Yeomen of the Guard. However this changed and the body guard devolved into two distinct entities. The Yeomen of the Guard continued as the personal bodyguard to the monarch but a separate group wearing almost identical uniforms became the Tower Warders of more formally The Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London. So Gilbert’s title reflects the wrong body of men.
Today the Yeomen of the Guard are retired soldiers who only appear on special ceremonial occasions, usually around 30 times a year. They are given three weeks notice and provided with railway warrants as well as an allowance for food and overnight accommodation. They receive no pay.
On the other hand, Yeomen Warders are full-time employees. They must have served at least 22 years in the armed services, reached the rank of warrant officer (or equivalent) and have earned the long service and good conduct medal. They live in cottages around tower green and their pay scale is in accordance with that of the Civil Service. In 2006 the first woman was appointed to their ranks. Today the duties are ceremonial and they work as tour guides to the Tower.
This is good research background but how does it help with costumes? There are various imaginations of the costume. Some have the monarch’s initials usually ER or HR on them—some of the authentic uniforms have these others do not, but then placing them limits the period that the production can be set in. Some costumes are embellished with a grid of gold mesh, which is effective, or other decorations. Under Elizabeth II the bodices have the insignias of England (a rose) Ireland (a shamrock) and Scotland (a thistle). Not appropriate for the historic yeomen.
After the D’Oyly Carte Company folded in 1982 much of its goods were sold off including sets of costumes. A few years ago I managed to obtain one of their Yeomen costumes. The first thing to note is the weight of it. I can hardly lift it and it would be very hot and uncomfortable to wear on stage. Nevertheless it is magnificent. The tunic is in the Elizabethan style, with large puffed sleeves gathered in at various points. The bodice is tight fitting with large panniered sections forming skirts. There is a Tudor rose in the centre of the bodice and no initials of any monarch. The tunic is worn over red britches. Both are liberally embellished with ribbons of gold and blue. A heavy woollen material is used throughout.
We invited a professional costume maker to look at it and give us an idea of how possible it would be to simplify and make on a budget. She went into raptures, pointing out how cleverly the decorations were done to catch the light and improve the look from the stage. With her we have worked out how to obtain a pattern, which would take up less material without looking as if we have skimped and making it possible to replicate the costume.
To make a set of costumes will be the task for we can recruit sewers in some kind of production line. But even with a lighter and less expensive material and some corners cut with substitutes for gold braid, the cost per costume will still be substantial.
The alternative to having our own set, is to hire from Perth, itself a costly solution. So the Committee decided to set up an appeal for our supporters to donate toward the making of the costumes.
Donations to Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria are a tax deduction, but the donor cannot direct the money to a specific cause (a regulation that has always puzzled me), nor can they receive any benefit such as a free ticket.
So we have prepared a flyer asking for donations to the group and promising it will be put toward the costume. Names of donors will be acknowledged in the programme. If anyone is generous enough to give us a larger sum that person’s name will be placed on the inside of the costume. In a generation hence a chorister may ask ‘who is Jennifer Benefit?’ And the answer will be a generous person who made the making of this costume possible.
For further information, visit Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria https://gsov.org.au
Diana is a well-known actor, director, reviewer and radio presenter. She is particularly recognised for her work directing Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Forthcoming and recent productions include Iolanthe (2017) and Pirates of Penzance (2013) for G&SOV, Utopia Limited (2016) and Yeomen of the Guard (2013) for Savoynet at the G & S Festival, Harrogate.