The fight director’s body of work includes Les Miserables and TV hits such as Blackadder. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about the challenges of staging swordfights and how women have now joined the fight club
Most actors fear dying on stage but Malcolm Ranson takes pride in it. For the veteran fight director, the violence has to be as believable as possible – while keeping people safe.
Fight directing is much in demand. Ranson is working on a tour of The Addams Family in the Netherlands and preparing the combat for a production of Cyrano de Bergerac in Jagsthausen, Germany.
These came after he put the finishing touches to the Royal Shakespeare Company ’s production of Don Quixote, which has just opened at the Garrick Theatre  in the West End after a run at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon .
The show’s move to London has made it easier to choreograph the fighting, he says. “It’s a thrust stage at the Swan, so you have the audience scrutinising your every move on three sides. It is less intimate at the Garrick but the proscenium stage means you only have to worry about one viewpoint.”
Although essentially a comedy, Don Quixote contains a lot of fighting – fencing, jousting, fisticuffs – and Ranson’s challenge was to make them believable yet light-hearted. “You can’t always do a funny fight,” he says. “The humour should emerge out of the situation, not from the quality of the fight. I always try to make a fight look real.”
Like many of his colleagues, Ranson got into fight directing by being in the right place at the right time. He trained as a drama teacher, teaching at the Thomas Sumpter School in his home town of Scunthorpe for several years, before quitting to become an acting assistant stage manager and, later, stage manager at Sheffield Playhouse.
“Back then there weren’t any fight directors in regional theatre, so they’d ask if anyone in the company knew how to arrange a fight,” he says. “I’d learnt how to fence at school and became quite good at it, so I always took on the ad hoc role of fight director.”
It was while working as an actor at Greenwich Theatre that he met the legendary William Hobbs , who was fight director at the National Theatre at the time. “Bill allowed me to deputise for him in rehearsals at Greenwich when he had to be at the National. Then he started putting freelance work my way, both fighting and teaching, and I assisted him on some shows in Germany. Eventually I was getting more fight jobs than acting jobs, so I decided to put my acting career on hold.”
Over a five-decade career, Ranson’s fighting skills have been in demand in Japan, Switzerland, Germany, the US, France, and Holland. He has worked on more than 50 shows for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Les Miserables in 1985 and The Plantagenets. At the National Theatre he worked on shows including Oklahoma! starring Hugh Jackman, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Coast of Utopia, while he was involved in West End hits including Spamalot , The Woman in White and Sister Act.
Ranson has worked abroad a lot this year, and was unaware that Hobbs died in July. Shaken by the news, he says: “We’d lost contact in recent years, but I owe him such a lot. I learnt so much just from watching him work. He changed the nature of stage and film fighting. His fights always looked as if the combatants were making it up on the spot. Without him I’m not sure I would have continued as a fight director. Working with Bill gave you a certain authority.”
Having worked extensively in film and TV, Ranson says he still prefers the stage because it means working as part of a company, building relationships with the cast and crew, and “seeing it through to the final product”.
He continues: “You’re not given as much time to get it right in films and television. Sword fights in particular are more dangerous on stage because you’re using metal swords whereas in movies you are able to use lighter materials and dub in the sounds later. On stage it is a potentially dangerous activity so you need to hire someone who knows how to keep the actors safe.”
Most acting courses include some fight training but Ranson says an actor’s ability to grasp fight moves depends mostly on their physical memory and determination to get it right. Not all can get it right. “I’ve worked with one or two actors who just couldn’t get it,” he says. “In one case I had to abandon the fight and instructed the actor to charge at his opponents whereupon they simply ran away.”
Then there is the issue of accidents and conforming to health and safety rules. “I’ve had some minor accidents but they are very few and far between,” Ranson says. “If a fight is rehearsed sufficiently it is usually okay. In a sword fight you must keep eye contact at all times to make sure you’re both sticking to the script, as it were. I always say to actors: ‘If you dry, whatever you do, don’t make it up.’ You can’t improvise a fight, it’s too dangerous.
Q&A: Malcolm Ranson
What was your first non-theatre job?
Drama teacher at Thomas Sumpter Secondary School, Scunthorpe.
What was your first paid theatre job?
Acting ASM, Sheffield Playhouse.
Who or what was your greatest influence?
What do you wish you’d known when you started out?
To trust my instincts.
If not a fight director, what would you have done?
Actor or director.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t say you can fight if you can’t.
“Actors sometimes get hit through lack of concentration or because they’ve been doing the same routine for too long. It is important to run through the moves before every performance.” He often revisits shows he has choreographed to make sure they have practised the moves. “You need to keep an eye on things and make sure they haven’t changed what they’re meant to be doing. Some young guys can be too macho for their own good.”
Over a long career, stretching back to the 1960s, Ranson has mostly worked with men but in recent years more women are coming into the frame. He says: “They want it to look as real and brutal as the men’s fights. Women are just as interested in learning how to do believable stage fighting as the men.”
Whoever is fighting onstage, Ranson always has to take the needs and capabilities of his actors into consideration. “As well as being able to work out the moves, you have to be part-psychologist and part-detective,” he says. “The most exciting thing is creating an entirely new fight from scratch. I remember when I first read the script for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and how excited I was to read that there was a spontaneous fight at the end of the play that was absolutely integral to the story.”
Technology is playing its part in taking stage combat forward. There are now special microphones actors can wear on their wrists to pick up the sound of blades clashing.
Ranson says: “I worked with this computer whizkid in Germany who managed to balance the sound of the voices and the blades with a single microphone attachment. It worked brilliantly, very cinematic, and audible even above orchestration. I think that’s the way we’re headed in terms of stage sword fights.”
The fight director shows no signs of slowing down. “I really enjoy what I do and it has taken me all over the world. I’d get so bored if I was retired,” he says. “What I do is fun and energising. It’s great to work with people who enjoy what they do. I love observing the rehearsal process and the different roles of all the creatives. It keeps me young.”
CV: Malcolm Ranson
Born: Scunthorpe, date undisclosed
Training: Drama teacher, Bretton Hall, Yorkshire
• Cyrano the Musical, Broadway (1973)
• Blackadder, TV series (1983)
• Les Miserables, Royal Shakespeare Company (1985)
• The Plantagenets, RSC, (1989)
• Les Liaisons Dangereuses, RSC (1985)
• Oklahoma! National Theatre, (1998)
• The Relapse, National Theatre (2001)
• Sophie’s Choice, Royal Opera House (2002)
• Spamalot, Playhouse, London (2006)
• Carmen, Greek National Opera (2015)
Agent: Curtis Brown
Don Quixote is at the Garrick Theatre, London , until February 2019