Who do you call?

The Scotsman
Who will ensure that the swordplay in your production of The Three Musketeers is authentic? There’s only one man to call

IT’S ONE thing the Traverse deciding to put on a non-festive family show at Christmas. And it’s one thing getting acclaimed playwright Chris Hannan to write it.

It’s another thing, however, to bring to the stage the swashbuckling adventures of the Three Musketeers and to be sure all the swordplay will look convincing. To get that right, the Edinburgh company knew who to call: fight director Renny Krupinski.

For the second time this year, Edinburgh audiences are getting to enjoy the authentic punch of Krupinski’s work. He won a Scotsman Fringe First in August for his play Bare, which he wrote, directed and starred in. He also choreographed the all-too-believable bare-knuckle confrontations that were the centrepiece of this underworld story about illegal fight clubs.

Despite the audience sitting at close quarters on three sides of the stage, he made it look as though the actors were doing it for real. This, he says, is down to a technique he developed while working at the Manchester Royal Exchange, a theatre famed for being “in the round”with the audience on all sides.

“I realised all the techniques I’d learned were dreadful in the round,” says Krupinski, who played bad guy Sizzler in Brookside in the 1980s and is a frequent fight arranger on Coronation Street. “There was daylight between the fist and the face. I thought there had to be a better way. I teach stage combat at drama school, so I used my students as guinea pigs – and I have to say, no students were hurt or killed in the making of this …”

His aim was for the actors to make contact and to produce the right sound, but not actually to injure each other. “I hated the fact that when the violence comes, the audience had almost to excuse what was going on as being ‘just pretend’. The fight is as much a part of the play as any other part. If a playwright has put a fight in, they’ve put it in for a reason. So I developed these contact slaps and punches and they absolutely work.”

It is a technique convincing enough to be effective from only inches away, as his actors discovered when they were drumming up audiences on the Royal Mile during the Fringe. He keeps the exact secret close to his chest, but admits it involves the same kind of misdirection used by magicians. “The quickness of the hand deceives the eye,” he says “It’s making the watcher look at the wrong thing – and it works every time.”

So important was the sword fighting to The Three Musketeers, in which D’Artagnan attempts to save Paris (and a Spanish princess) with the help of his trusty colleagues, that director Dominic Hill had Krupinski by his side from the very earliest auditions.It is all very well an actor looking the part, but if he is an unconvincing or, worse, a dangerous fighter, the production could either lose its dramatic tension or acquire the wrong kind of tension altogether.

“People who couldn’t fight didn’t get the job,” says Krupinski. “Dominic would like certain people and I would say, ‘They just can’t fight’. In my auditions, I’m looking for someone who, when they pick up the sword, doesn’t terrify me, someone who can control his blade. You get lots of people who can swish a blade about but have no control over it and they’re a danger to anyone who’s on stage with them. If you don’t know where the sword is going to go, they’re a liability.”

He says it is the equivalent of spotting whether someone can ride a horse: you can sense it just by the way they approach the animal without needing to see them in the saddle. “When someone picks up the sword, before they’ve even fought with it, I’ll know if they’re going to be really good or a disaster,” he says. “You get an instinct.”

Ultimately, his job is to control a given scene with the precision of a choreographer. “It’s not just a question of slipping in a few kicks and punches here and there,” he says. “You’ve got to have a shape to it, you’ve got to be able to let the audience watch what you want them to watch and you’ve got to make it safe. It’s always a creative process. You build it up and, just like a picture, you add a bit of colour here, take away a bit of colour there, until you end up with an artistically pleasing scene.”

And whether he’s dealing in stunts, punches or swords, Krupinski’s guiding principle is the same: “You can’t leave anything to chance. I’m not interested in phoning for ambulances. It doesn’t get you repeat business.