Cloak and dagger at the fight club

Usually a fight director’s role goes almost unrecognised, but not this time. Sarah Hemming talks to Renny Krupinski the man behind the swords of The Three Musketeers

While most of us spend the festive season trying to avoid open conflict with anything larger than a turkey, at London’s Young Vic theatre a group young men can regularly be found bracing themselves for armed combat. A glimpse behind closed doors reveals an unnerving scene. Some chaps slice at each other with gleaming rapiers, others stand alone flexing their weapons, and one man examines his sword appreciatively, “It’s a new blade,” he says with evident delight. This is the cast of The Three Musketeers, going through a daily fight call to hone their swashbuckling skills. For while peace and harmony supposedly prevail elsewhere, the Young Vic’s Christmas show features fighting – and masses of it. It’s the perfect seasonal treat for small boys warming up for full-scale Christmas Day conflict.
The man behind this organised beligerence is the fight director Renny Krupinski. Usually Krupinski’s contribution would go almost unrecognised, but this time it features high on the list of credits. To be included on Equity’s fight register you need a range of qualifications, including first aid. “Without wanting to get too precious about it, every time you do a fight you deal with people’s lives,” he points out. “We use real swords. They’re not sharp, but they are real. The fighting has to look dangerous, but be safe. If it looks tame it’s pointless. What you want to do is make the audience relax about the actors and get terribly worried for the characters.”
Krupinski admits that the weapons, though doctored, could still inflict serious damage. “The swords are sabre guards with an epee blade – a close relation to a rapier blade. Each sword comes with a kind of nail head to make it flat, which on stage looks very peculiar because it gets picked up in the light. So I grind the nail down and make a round end on it, and then test it on my hand and face to see whether it cuts. But even if you had a nail head on there or a rubber tip, that would avoid it going through you, it could still go up your nose, down your throat or in your eye without any problems. So if you are going to have a fight that looks real, you’ve got to have skilled fighters.”
To arrive at the cast of The Three Musketeers, the theatre held fight auditions before it held acting auditions. All the actors are trained in sword-fighting, but they nonetheless spent much of the five week rehearal period working on their duelling skills. This was partly, Krupinski says, because of the set. Far from being safely confined behind a proscenium arch, the show is played in the round and on narrow catwalks that run across the auditorium, perilously close to the audience.
“I know when I say to the actors, ‘Stop the sword’, they are skilled enough to be able to do so. But in a rehearsal room you only have bits of tape on a floor. They had to get used to an audience, because the audience makes the place seem very small and suddenly you have children sitting right alongside the stage.”
Needless to say in a show like this, there is no room for inspired moments of inspiration. Every move is tightly choreographed. “If you forget your lines you can make them up and nobody gets hurt,” says Krupinski. “If you forget your fight, the best thing to do is cut to the end and get off.” And choreography is the word. Every manoeuvre is notated, as in a dance, so that there are two texts for the show – the written one and the fight one.
“There are lots of different types of notation,” explains Krupinski. “Each move has a name. It can be in normal English – ‘head cut’, or in old Italian -‘fendente’. You read the text left to right and down and across. So if, half way down, a third character comes in, the text gets a little wider and so on – if you’ve got nine people on stage you’ve got a very wide fight text.”
Choreographing a fight is not only about avoiding accidents, of course. it also has to convince, which is tricky in a circular auditorium (Krupinski is proud of having invented a slap that works in the round). And it has to be creative. Krupinski had to find as many vairations on two men fighting as he could: “We have one comedic fight with the omlette (when one character blithely cooks an omlette amid a wildly energetic conflict), we have a big brawl and we have what we call the ‘rhythm fight’, which has an element of real choreography to it. We do ‘case of rapiers’ (in which each opponent fights with two swords at once) and some rapier and cloak at the end. There’s also lots of unarmed stuff with kicks and punches.”
At one point, one man even executes a cartwheel on one hand, sword in the other, and comes up fighting. Krupinski is the first to admit that this manoeuvre would be unlikely to feature in 17th Century duelling, but he is unrepentant: “I have a rule, which is: if it makes me laugh, it stays.”
The fight sequences also reflect the characters’ personalities, with each one fighting in a certain style. “Aramis is very flamboyant so you have to accomodate that, while Athos is very dour and Porthos is very comedic.”
Different shows too call for different approaches. The fight between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet has to be terrifyingly earnest, for instance and the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear has to be appalling. In the Young Vic’s The Three Musketeers, on the other hand, the tone is light and witty and sprinkled with comic touches. “It’s not glorifying violence,” says Krupinski. “There’s a lot of sword-fighting but no graphic cutting of people.”
He adds however, that the comic nature of the show doesn’t mean he can water down his input. “Violence on stage has to be violent, irrespective of whether it is in pantomime or in Silence of the Lambs. It has to be believable. It really is the context within which the violence is set that determines whether we laugh at it or whether we are horrified by it. But ultimately it has to be truthful. And it mustn’t become slick. It has to stay spontaneous.”
If all this unpalatably heavy on the machismo Krupinski is working on a show that might restore the balance. he also writes, directs and acts and in the summer hopes to visit the Edinburgh Festival with an all-female play (Lady Macbeth Rewrites The Rulebook) that displays the actresses martial skills. “They normally get slapped around the stage or run to the side screaming, ” he says. “I’ve seen some really excellent women fighters and I think it’s sad they rarely get the chance to do it.”
Edinburgh audiences had better be on guard.