Heads Will Roll: An NT Archive Spooktacular that’ll have you saying #OhMyGourd!

WARNING: Contains gory photographs!

For all you ghosts and goblins, we’re creepin’ it real with this blood curdling blog, not for the faint-hearted. Fran Horner, Archive Assistant at the National Theatre Archive, explores a slightly #Unboolievable object held in their collections.

I have worked in the Archive at the National Theatre for just over a year and I still get surprised and excited by the diverse array of items which reside in and are deposited into the Archive.

My most memorable accession was waiting for me on my desk one morning last October in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. Unsure where it had come from or what was inside, I peeped in. I recoiled in shock as I saw what appeared to be actor Rory Kinnear staring up at me through the orange plastic glow of the bag. It wasn’t a photograph or a model, it was a life-sized severed head complete with blood splatters and artificial flesh dangling out the bottom. This was certainly different to the programmes, posters, prompt scripts and costume bibles I was used to accessioning into the collection.

I rarely get to handle props in the NT Archive because props from past productions are usually kept at the Props and Costume Hire Store in Kennington where other theatres and members of the public can hire them out, however, this prop was special.

The severed head was created by the NT Props Department for the 2018 production of Macbeth staged on the Olivier theatre which starred Rory Kinnear in the title role. The Props Department collaborated with London based company FBFX and used state-of-the-art scanning technology, which has never been used by the team before, to take a 3D scan of Kinnear’s head. This created a digital skin which was then printed into a 3D object. A silicone mould was taken from the 3D printed object and a polyurethane cast was made. The head was then brought to life with fibre glass eyes inserted into the sockets, individual fibre glass teeth planted into the mouth, skin tones painted to resemble Kinnear’s flesh, latex veins sculpted and painted to dangle from the neck and individual strands of hair punctured into the skin to form hair and a beard by the Wigs, Hair & Make-Up Department.

Rory’s head is now somewhat famous at the NT, as I have had several emails from staff asking to confirm if the head does actually now live in the Archive. It has gone on trips out to various exhibitions and expositions to highlight the processes and technology used to create this unique prop. It is frequently brought out on tours and Archive inductions to educate people on the types of material kept in the Archive outlining our methods of storage, handling and preservation and, of course, to give them a bit of a scare.

It is my favourite object in the collection because it challenges what kinds of items can be found in an Archive and has made me research more about storage and preservation of 3D objects, developing my archival practice and knowledge. I see this head as an artistic object, it is not just a prop, but it is a physical embodiment of the play, the character, Kinnear and the imagination and innovation of the Props Department preserved (and sleeping) in a box in the NT Archive…

The National Theatre Archive is a treasure trove of material, covering all of the creative, technical and administrative records of the National Theatre. The Archive is open to everyone by appointment. The collection covers the movement to found the National Theatre and the period from the start of the company in 1963 right up to the present day. 

To explore more visit https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/about-the-national-theatre/archive