What does it take to bring convincing gore to the stage?Albi Rix with permission for Varsity

So, you’ve decided to put on a naturalistic production of Titus Andronicus (in this hypothetical you’re a psycho). That’s only nine killings to stage, plus some cannibalisation and mutation, or as one scholar succinctly observed, 5.2 atrocities per act. No big deal. There’s only one problem: you’ve never worked with fake blood. It can’t be that hard, right? Well, if you ask the theatre-makers of Cambridge who have worked with the stuff, you’d find out there’s more to it than you might think.

“In this game, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile”

Central to good fake blood is the recipe, and finding the perfect mix requires some creativity and patience. Seasoned blood technician Maisie Johnson told me, with slightly unnerving nostalgia, about how she “got a big tub and sat in the middle of [her] carpet”, spending “hours covered in flour and food colouring and oil and all sorts” as a fresher stage-managing Nadia Lines’ The York Crucifixion. She is a modern-day Goldilocks, looking for the blood porridge that is just right. No one blood fits all however, and suiting viscosity to the demands of the show is crucial, so be ready to experiment. While Nadia said that a thicker oil-based blood worked well for the dramatic scenes of Crucifixion, for a base mix Maisie recommends food colouring combined with unscented and uncoloured shampoo, the logic being that it is easier to clear up something that is designed for the very act of cleaning up. Clever. You just have to be careful with this concoction; it’s safe, but it’s not particularly pleasant to burst a bagful of it into your eyes, as she found out while testing on herself for the eye-gouging scene in this Lent term’s production of King Lear. The final solution was chunky applesauce dyed red – yummy.

“Central to good fake blood is the recipe”

Now, staining has long been public enemy no.1 of those in the fake blood world. It’s safe to say that some of the red leather seats in the Union chamber were slightly richer in hue once Lear was finished with them. That’s after the show was pushed over budget by having to buy every pack of Mainsbury’s baby wipes multiple times, according to producer Luke Morris. With rehearsals, tech, and dress runs, and a full set of performances to clear up, you better be prepared to get scrubbing. Good luck with any white clothing: director Maddy Sanderson remembers giving up trying to clean the white costumes of her show My Eyes are Not Scabs every night; by the final performance, the “originally white t-shirts had a distinct reddy/pinkish tint”. And it’s not just the costumes (and seats and ceilings and floors) you’ll have to deal with, but yourself too. Maisie showed off her fingers to me, well cleaned, but nails still the stylish red of caked food colouring. If it’s any consolation, after every show life will come to imitate art, as Oscar Wilde foretold. Out, damn spot!

“It’s safe but not particularly pleasant to burst a bagful of it into your eyes”

Sometimes, just blood won’t be enough. In this game, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile. Indeed, with Titus Andronicus’s handful of hands full with other people’s hands (recently divorced from their full bodies) you’re going to need much more than some dyed shampoo. Perhaps inspiration can be found in the 2022 production of Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. Having been talked down from visiting an abattoir, director Ralph Jeffreys said he instead brought to life the ripping apart of Hippolytus at the end of the show via some dyed intestinal sausage casings, with a friend “channel[ling] all his rage into slamming them into a Sainsbury’s disposal barbecue in front of a surprised audience”. Jake Burke, who played Hippolytus during his first term at Cambridge, summed up having to store the intestines in his gyp kitchen after all five performances as “not ideal”. Arguably not the best impression only a week after freshers, but we make sacrifices in the name of the art of blood and guts.


Mountain View

Why you should go to the audition

Not everyone has what it takes for the cut-throat – pun intended – world of fake blood, and with Titus Andronicus, you’re in for a baptism of fire. However, just maybe, after a few weeks of red shampoo, vigorous floor scrubbing, biological hazards, and some bloodbath performances of “one of the stupidest and most uninspiring plays ever written” (according to T. S. Eliot), you might have caught the blood bug, and be ready to join the elite world of Cambridge’s fake blood aficionados.