It's just as well the rain has stopped at Pop-up Globe's Ellerslie Racecourse base as Stephen Butterworth, looking like he's time-travelled from Elizabethan England, treads along paths threaded through manicured spring gardens.

If it were a race day, Butterworth, who plays the eponymous king in Richard III, would surely win a fashion-in-the-field award; if it were raining, he might start to rust. That's because he's wearing a doublet, with artfully slashed sleeves and a white lace collar, and matching knickerbockers made from an imported metallic silver haute couture fabric which contains woven metal wrapped in fabric.

As Shakespeare once wrote, the soul of this man is his clothes.

Costume designer Bob Capocci believes the metal is well enough wrapped and protected not to rust, but nobody wants to take any chances by having a bespoke costume – modelled on an actual 17th-century outfit found in a Dorsetshire farmhouse – in the rain.

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Besides, making a costume like Butterworth's – and many of the others to be worn by Pop-up Globe's fourth season cast – can take up to 80 hours using traditional patterning, construction and sewing techniques.

Butterworth is followed into the Pop-up Globe by Dave Fane, who's best known as a comedian but has been adding to his credentials by taking on some seriously weighty roles of late. He plays King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence in Richard III and wears an ensemble including a doublet, tasselled knickerbockers, candy pink hose and high-heeled black shoes.

Dave Fane is taking on the challenge of wearing heels and wielding a sword. Photo/Will Bailey
Dave Fane is taking on the challenge of wearing heels and wielding a sword. Photo/Will Bailey

"It's my first time in heels," he says, "and I now know why women can develop exquisite calves because wearing them is a work-out. I'll happily wear the pink socks, though."

In four years, Pop-up Globe has become a theatrical phenomenon with productions traveling to Melbourne and Sydney and its fourth New Zealand season opening this month. That success has also made it the largest holder of Jacobean and Elizabethan costumes in the country with around 20 staff working in its wardrobe department.

Newbies and "old hands" are employed each season. They come mainly from fashion backgrounds but are taught to make garments in a way similar to how they would have been made 400 years ago. The techniques that get taught and used here are not learned at tertiary courses – at least not in NZ.

Proper armour is used in the shows; dressers are trained by the wardrobe department staff because, as The Taming of the Shrew costume designer Sabrina Brookfield points out, the elaborate costumes don't zip, fasten or button up in the same way as contemporary clothes do.

One look at the sumptuous dresses worn by Natasha Daniel and Ripeka Templeton (respectively Shrew's Katherina and Bianca) and Jess Loudon (Elizabeth I) proves the truth of that. The women step carefully, mindful of holding rounded skirts above stockinged and slippered feet.

Shrew is set in 1616, in Italy where, says Brookfield, the clothes were slightly more relaxed than those Capocci has designed for the more rigid late medieval period depicted in Richard III. What's also different this year is that they're designing and making more costumes for women.

In July, Pop-up Globe sailed perilously close to a full-blown crisis when the young company found itself pilloried for using the #MeToo campaign when it announced its 2018/19 shows – The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Hamlet and Measure for Measure - with an all-male cast performing a feminist version of Shrew.

Within days, the company declared it would make a commitment to cast equal numbers of male and female actors for every new Auckland season. Pop-up Globe founder and artistic director Dr Miles Gregory acknowledges it was a difficult time but says it led to the company having a "great discussion" about what it wants to make and how it can create work that brings unity, hope and joy.

"… I think of all of those things, unity is the most important," he says. "We live in a very divided world and people feel very strongly – often it's extreme views that are the loudest – and I think there's a place for moderates to urge for unity whether it's in the political sphere or any other but above all, as a theatre company, we want to make work that delights, inspires and makes our audiences happy. We are not a political organisation but a busy producing theatre company."

This year, Gregory says audiences can expect to see the stage used in new ways by larger casts wielding weapons not seen before. They include arquebus – an early type of portable gun described by Gregory as the "shock and awe" of its day – and pikes.

"We're interested in making spectacular theatre so our in-house research team has researched the weaponry of the time and worked with experts to create these working weapons. We're working with experts who are becoming ever more expert in making plays for this theatre. We're now a company that is three years old and we've made a lot of work in that time…"

And learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

What: Pop-up Globe
Where & when: Ellerslie Racecourse, Friday, November 16 – until March 2019