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The costume designer who brings the Abbey stage to life

"This is where we have break-downs," Niamh Lunney gestures towards a dirty platform stacked with wool, birdseed and buttons.

"Not emotional breakdowns," she quickly clarifies. "Where we beat the clothes, break them down and batter them up."

Niamh is head of costume at the Abbey Theatre. She's telling me about the abuse garments go through before reaching the stage.

"We don't want clothes to look brand new," she explains. And because practically everything at the Abbey Theatre is custom-made, the costumes need to be roughed up.

Stacks of sandpaper are used to fray collars, while Vaseline helps suit jackets look sweat-stained. And the birdseed?

To create the illusion of "really heavy, old boobs," Niamh says, before pausing. "It's a mad way to make a living really."

The national theatre has the largest and busiest costume department in Ireland; 569 costumes were created here between 2009 and 2011. And with costumes dating from 1904, they have some of the most coveted gems of the Irish stage.

"We have Mrs Grogan's shawl from the original staging of The Plough And The Stars," Niamh says. "I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

Synge, Yeats, Maud Gonne, Milo O'Shea – all their theatrical threads are here. The costume department is a constant flurry of activity – sewing machines whirl, dryers spin wildly and seamstresses scurry about with measuring tape draped around their shoulders.

shock

"Everyone who works here is at the top of their game," Niamh tells me proudly. Given the output and historical importance of the Abbey's costume department, it came as a shock when, in 2009, the board of directors considered drastically scaling it back.

As a result, the theatre lost its set department but, thanks to Niamh's ingenuity, they found a way to raise revenue from the costume department.

The Abbey Theatre Costume Hire service was launched in December 2009. Located in an industrial estate in Finglas, it is open two days a week, with hire prices varying from €5 for a pair of gloves to €60 for a full military uniform.

The mum-of-two began her career studying fashion in Limerick, but soon realised mass manufacturing and department stores weren't for her.

"I thought of everything I liked best about college. It was the variety and the turnover of ideas. Slowly, the cogs started turning and I realised I wanted to work in costume." So Niamh started out in the busy costume department of the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College Dublin.

In 2003, she left TCD to cover maternity leave at the Abbey and has never looked back. After a lot of toil, sweat and tears, Niamh was made head of the department.

With each new production, the Abbey hires a chief designer to sketch the costumes.

"We get the cream-of-the-cream when it comes to designers – from Peter O'Brien to Eimear Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh.

"They show us their sketches, and then we head out to Santry to see if we have the right cufflinks and shoelaces."

sweaty

Aside from cutting, sourcing and hiring out garments, the costume department spend most of their days cleaning up after sweaty actors.

"The actors go on stage, they do their job and they sweat like racehorses," Niamh says.

"Those lights are hot. So everything has to be washed and laundered. Maintenance is a big part of what we do. Accidents happen. And things do rip," Niamh admits.

In their last production of Shakespeare's King Lear, actor and Primeval star Ciaran McMenamin was left red-faced when the seat of his pants suddenly split in the middle of a scene.

"One of the girls had to sew him back in – so there are perks to the job," Niamh laughs.

Having visited the various cutting and fitting rooms, we head out to the warehouse in Santry.

Outside, it looks fairly unremarkable but, inside, it's a kaleidoscope of colour. Pink taffeta skirts and cream crinoline undercoats spill from the rafters; swagger coats and military jackets hang proudly. Scarves the colour of Quality Street wrappers are folded in a corner.

"Everything here has been on the Abbey stage. There is that connection with the theatre and people love that," Niamh says.

Watching her talk about the designs, you realise these aren't just costumes – these are the most tangible relics of each performance, and the fabric that holds the Abbey Theatre together.

hnews@herald.ie


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