Baying for stage blood: meet theatre’s gore merchants

Sope Dirisu in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Coriolanus. Photo: Helen Maybanks Sope Dirisu in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Coriolanus. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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From Shakespearean tragedies to slasher horrors, realistic stage blood is a must for shows that aim to shock, disgust and thrill. Industry insiders tell Gavin James Bower the secrets of their crimson trade

During the battle scene in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Coriolanus, a rampaging Sope Dirisu, playing the brutal Roman general, is coated from head to toe in blood. It’s a gloriously arresting image for the audience and – ahead of the transfer from Stratford to the Barbican in London next month – its publicity material.

As the gory combat plays out on the stage, there’s a military operation to clean up all the mess behind the scenes. The costume department has a limited time to clean up the performer and have got it down to a fine art. According to Fi Keston, wigs assistant and make-up artist at the RSC: “It now takes two minutes and 19 seconds.”

Sticking to those precise timings involves a dresser, a wig assistant and an assistant stage manager helping the actor get undressed, into the shower then a new costume and back on stage. “It’s all very choreographed,” Keston says.

For a production like this, the rehearsals flag up exactly how much blood will be needed during a play and when it needs to be ordered. Coriolanus requires a 25-litre batch “every week and a half”. Keston and her team do the lion’s share of application on the night, taking charge of what she calls the “blood room”, which has everything they need. It also includes washing machines used to tackling heavy-duty stains.

Two types of blood are used in the theatre. The first is syrup-based, sticky, looks wet and never dries. The second is alcohol-based – denatured, industrial but non-toxic – and its drying effect means the blood ultimately stays in place.

The wigs team add other ingredients, too. “We put glycerine on Sope, in his armpits, on the actual blood to create a thin barrier so he can move,” Keston says.

A thickener is also used, like corn flour or, she says, “a roux” (a mixture of flour and butter used by cooks to thicken sauces). Blood manufacturers are rather secretive about exact recipes – “a bit like chefs”.

Pigs Might Fly South is one such manufacturer. The company produces stage blood in batches of 125 litres with 23 stockists around the world but, according to Anthony Davies, who runs the company, the recipe has remained essentially unaltered for 30 years.  The only changes are food preservatives to comply with strict EU regulations for cosmetics. Under a rigorous testing programme introduced in 2014, the product needs to be able to stay on for four weeks – even though in practice it never will.

To get the ‘28 Days Later look’ the company added a second preservative to survive intense test conditions, along with syrup or alcohol as the base, plus water and dyes. Though safe to drink, tap water is not of the required purity, so treated water is used instead.

The only real difference beyond the base, Davies explains, is the colour: bright red for arterial, dark red for venous.

“For Ink at the Almeida, they needed printers’ ink to spill across the stage – and to be able to wash it off easily,” he says.  Lots of blue was added to his usual mix to achieve the effect.

When Keston started out in theatre in the 1970s, they used a brand called Kensington Gore. Stage blood has since improved and audiences become more sophisticated, “with an appetite for realism”. The blood used today needs to look believable but also dramatic. “They want blood, guts, gore and grime,” she adds.

In Shakespeare’s day, actors such as Richard Burbage – a painter himself – used paints and pigments to wow the crowd.

Participants in a ‘stage blood roundtable’ at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 said theatremakers of the time would have used animal blood – freely available due to the butchery on London’s streets – as well as vermilion, vinegar and wine, with varied results.

Flora Spencer-Longhurst, William Houston and Dyfan Dwyfor in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Flora Spencer-Longhurst, William Houston and Dyfan Dwyfor in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Those who attended the event disagreed about the emotive impact of the blood on early modern audiences. Some argued the daily violence in society, including public executions, meant stage blood may have affected them more. Others suggested they would have been desensitised. Farah Karim-Cooper of the Globe’s education department pointed out that the expense of the clothing and the inability to launder them may have led to sparing use of stage blood.

These days, Keston says: “Blood is like ice cream. It’s colouring, sugar and thickener – and it has to be able to go in the actors’ mouths.”

Safety is the most important factor. As far as the actors are concerned, there should be no blood on their hands – literally, if they have a weapon and don’t want it accidentally slipping out mid-fight. “Blood is a serious thing,” Keston says.

In the theatre, though, it mostly seems the more blood the better. “The Rome Season has been a very bloody season,” she says, referring to the RSC’s productions of Dido, Queen of Carthage, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus alongside Coriolanus. It adds to the drama: “Blood is telling a story.”

In Julius Caesar, the clean-up team used 70 flannels in every show. While for Coriolanus, director Angus Jackson wanted his lead to look like he had “a bucketful of blood on him”.

So what do the actors think? “Actors are excited by the blood at first,” Keston says. “By the end they’re a bit fed up of scrubbing themselves in continuous showers and being sticky.”

The use of stage blood is not without risk. Especially around the use of blood bags, Keston says, which are “like water bombs”. Too tight or too saggy and it can go wrong – for example, blood spilling from a body part before the fatal blow is struck.

“In film and TV, they might have between five and 10 costume changes,” she says. “In theatre we can’t run to those expenses. But we can always try again the next day.”

This means blood, blood and even more blood. In Coriolanus, the RSC’s team uses four pints of blood per show – half the amount in an average person’s body – “with probably a full pint for Sope himself”, Keston reckons.

Film is different, where less is often more. In the live broadcast of Coriolanus, screened in cinemas earlier this month, they didn’t coat the star with as much blood as usual because of the cameras. “In the theatre, the audience is doing the editing while on screen the camera is doing it for you,” Keston says.

That is not to say the movie business is less bloodthirsty than the theatre. Far from it, says blood-maker Davies.

His biggest order ever was for the Dan Brown blockbuster Inferno – which used 5,000 litres (plus 20,000 litres of water) in just one 30-second take, a shower of red raining down on Robert Langdon before a wall of blood smashes through a glass building.

This took Pigs Might Fly South two weeks of non-stop manufacturing from 6.30am to 8.30pm, even though Davies usually works at night. “I’m a bit like a vampire,” he says, “stirring my cauldron of blood.”

Coriolanus transfers to London’s Barbican Theatre from November 6-18; pigsmightfly.co.uk