Building Hamlet, set designer Meredith B. Ries offers her final reflections on what she considers "[an] experiment with blending humor and tragedy, evil and humanity... a dark jibe at religious faith, at royalty, at ambition. [Hamlet is] a ghost story and a love story." 

"/> Building Hamlet: Behind the Scenes at Yale Rep (Pt. 8) — The Airship
By Meredith B. Ries

Last Saturday, on a sunny morning in New Haven, I was sitting in my yard with a cup of coffee trying to sort through my feelings about Hamlet, which opened the night before. Birds were out and about, despite the cold. I think it has snowed, snowed wet, indecisive, city spring snow, every day since this process began. By contrast the sun seemed prophetic and cleansing.

Openings in the theater are funny things. For a designer, they mark the end of the process and not the beginning; opening is the last time you see the show.

As many, many people have noted, live theatre is a fleeting and ephemeral experience. Depending on where you are sitting, on when you see the play, on whether or not the person sitting next to you falls asleep or texts or cries or opens candy you have a completely different experience of the performance from everyone else, and no one has a "complete" experience. No one sees it all.

Beyond the endless variety possible in a live performance of anything, with Shakespeare you've got something extra, that Beatles quality of timeless, global familiarity. No one in the English-speaking world is really seeing Hamlet for the first time. Even if you haven't read it, don't know the plot, have never seen it, you've heard someone quote it somewhere at some point. The play is full of phrases that have become idioms and actions that have become tropes. 

Working on something like this, you feel as though you are competing with the invisible expectations of an audience that's got images of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh tucked away in their minds, multimillion-dollar Hollywood sets and perfect summer Delacorte nights.

But luckily, the language in Shakespeare plays is so dense that you can't possibly hear it all in one sitting, or five; the more times you see one of his plays, the more you discover in the text. 

Throughout this entire process, I tried to cast away what I thought I already knew about Hamlet, and I pretended it was a new play, an experiment. Because that is what it was when it was written: just another of Shakespeare's plays, another experiment with blending humor and tragedy, evil and humanity. It's a dark jibe at religious faith, at royalty, at ambition. It's a ghost story and a love story. 

I saw every run through of Hamlet during tech, all of the previews, and the opening night performance. I sat in most parts of the audience, from the front row of the orchestra to the back row of the balcony. Most of the time I was focused on making the set perfect, but in watching it over and over again I saw more and more in the text and what our production was bringing to it. 

The soliloquy "now is the very witching time of night" (Act 3, Scene 2) is delivered by Hamlet, clad in white tie and red sneakers, on the abandoned stage from the play within the play. A prop crown (swiped from the players) lies at his feet.

Somewhere in the middle of tech, I realized how potent the symbols in this staging are. In an earlier scene (Act 2, Scene 2), Hamlet has one of the players deliver a powerful speech, and then laments that he cannot muster that level of emotion: 

What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeedv The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing

Now, standing on the players' stage, the player king's crown at his feet, he says "Now I could drink hot blood/ And do such bitter business/ As the day would quake to look on." This soliloquy is so different from the others in the play. It is extremely short, violent, and decisive where we have previously seen Hamlet as contemplative and inward-looking. The staging helps us understand that in some ways this speech is Hamlet's performance for himself.

"To be or not to be" (Act 3, Scene 1) is staged with Hamlet in a doorway. I was sitting in tech on the third or fourth day when I realized that the super moody live-in boyfriend of my early 20s had this exact same bathrobe and used to lean in doorways just like this, looking sad. Jayoung's youthful costumes gave Hamlet's despair in that moment a relatable, contemporary truth.

The wall of Gertrude's closet (Act 3, Scene 4). 

In this scene, Polonius is killed, Hamlet tells his mother about his father's murder, and the ghost reappears (pictured). Instinctively, I knew that this was the emotional center of the play, and needed a much smaller, more realized space. It is the only fully architecturally fleshed-out wall in the set. But what I discovered after the play opened was that the long flat wall also brought out the almost sitcom-like quality of the scene. I realized this as I heard the rapid, witty banter between Hamlet and Gertrude in this setting:

"HAMLET: Now mother, what's the matter
GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue"

The grave scene and the chapel scene both sit as potent, iconic images of death and repentance. I knew this when I initially designed the show, but seeing the sparse simple imagery onstage I realized how much trust we had put in the text – just a hole in the stage for the grave, and a floating cross for the chapel – to ground these scenes. In performance these choices seem very powerful. We allowed the language to flesh out the environments for us.

No production of any play is perfect. The constantly-changing quality of live performance is why I do this. You design what seems like this perfect crystallized thing, and then you put it in the theater and you have to tweak it for the specifics of the space and the staging. But every night the performances are a little different, and so the space means something different. 

Then you open it, give it to the actors and the audience, and walk away. People experience it and take away their own interpretations. Interpretations that you can't control. And a month later you tear it down.

Right before the fencing match at the end of the play, Hamlet, perhaps understanding that it is a trick, says:

"We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all"

On opening night, these lines brought tears to my eyes. I thought about all of us giving this show to the world for a short time, until we have to take it down. 

And the rest is silence.

Meredith B. Ries has worked in New York City primarily as a props master. Her props credits include The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (both at the Public Theater / Shakespeare in the Park), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the Public Theater), An Oresteia (Classic Stage Company), Orpheus XChair (Theater for a New Audience), and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) (assistant props, Lincoln Center Theater). She has also worked with Second Stage Theater, Elevator Repair Service, and Target Margin Theater. Her portfolio can be found here.

Credit: Yale Rep/Joan Marcus (all images)

Previous Installment: We Keep the Actors in a Padded Cell That is Bigger Than My Apartment