A Black Balloon Publication ©
December 07, 2012

Building Hamlet: Behind the Scenes at Yale Rep (Part I)

By Meredith B. Ries
Star Wars is Hamlet. The Count of Monte Cristo is Hamlet. Batman is Hamlet. Everything is Hamlet. And now, my entire life is Hamlet. Credit: Flickr user pasukaru 76. Used with a Creative Commons license.

Star Wars is Hamlet. The Count of Monte Cristo is Hamlet. Batman is Hamlet. Everything is Hamlet. And now, my entire life is Hamlet.

Credit: Flickr user pasukaru 76. Used with a Creative Commons license.

Meredith Ries, a set designer currently in her final year at the Yale School of Drama, is writing a multi-part series about her design process for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater, opening in the spring of 2013. This is the first installment.

Part 1: “I’m sorry, what exactly is it that you do?”

First off, I am not going to misquote Shakespeare here and say “all the world’s a stage,” because it is not. A stage, in my opinion, is an intentional space of performance. Whenever you choose to perform in a specific spot, it becomes a stage.

It can be as simple as this…

Man on a soap box, Speakers Corner, London

Man on a soap box, Speakers Corner, London

…or as involved as this:

George Tsypin's set for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

George Tsypin's set for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Historically, Shakespeare's plays were written and performed on a bare stage, so the atmosphere is in the dialogue, not the stage directions. This is not true of all plays (see: Tennessee Williams).

For example, as Hamlet waits for his father’s ghost to appear he says to his companions:

The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The Kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Act 1, scene 4

This is preceded by a stage direction: “A flourish of trumpets, and ordinance shot off, within.”

What’s more useful? I would argue that without the stage direction, we still know exactly what’s going on from Hamlet’s talk: Claudius is partying downstairs. We can hear it. We feel evidence of it.

While Hamlet waits in the cold for the righteous ghost of his murdered father, his murdering uncle is throwing a kegger downstairs. And that’s where I start: with the script, and with the clues in it about atmosphere, specifics, contrast, and space.

• • •

I once had a director say that you could tell the entire focus of a Shakespeare play from the first line. In Hamlet, that line is “Who’s there?”

It’s a play about haunting. There is a ghost in this play, but also a huge amount of spying, lurking, secrets. Also, obviously, it’s about a house. An old house. A house where you never know who might be in the room with you.

I generated a bunch of general visual research, some of which really stuck.


Kate Peters

Berndaut Smilde

The Kate Peters photograph feels like someone is watching through the doorway of an old house; it suggests presence and absence. I love the casual lean of the mirror. The spookiness is not intentional, but discovered. The actor playing Hamlet looked at this image and said, “I could do ‘To be or not to be’ in this room.” Boom!

The second image is useful to me because it feels like a space that is in transition. If you think about the plot of Hamlet, he comes home from college and his uncle has married his mother and moved all his dad’s stuff around. That sucks. I made some rough drawings that were really boring, and then I started looking for an image or an inspiration that could capture the whole space, and give me the kind of basic “bare stage” of Shakespeare — a space that is evocative, yet neutral enought to be many places at once.

I have the photographer Edgar Martins’ book This is Not A House, and in it I found this image of a McMansion under construction abandoned during the housing crisis.

Edgar Martins (click to enlarge)

Something about the framing — the skeleton of a house — and the everyday, relatable materials really inspired me. So, I built myself about 100 scale stud walls and I am playing with them like legos. Next meeting, I’ll present that and see how it goes. Stay tuned!

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 X, Chair (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 at www.meredithries.com

Next: Using Plexiglass to See Claudius' True Nature