Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ ends with the wedding of four couples, including Rosalind and Orlando, with the ceremony overseen by the God of Marriage, Hymen. But how do you go about depicting a god onstage? The answer for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production, directed by Kimberley Sykes, is to create a gigantic puppet, measuring 5½ metres high and 11 metres wide. We talk to its creators, RSC Director of design, Stephen Brimson Lewis and Puppetry Director, Mervyn Millar.
Why did the puppet need to be so big?
Stephen: “Shakespeare’s As You Like It ends with a great marriage ceremony. He asks for the God of Marriage to appear on stage and bless the couples. In other productions an actor might change costume and come back dressed as a god. But Kimberley Sykes (the director) and I wanted to make something bigger, to create a moment at the end that felt very different to the rest of the play.
“We looked at things like the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, where they do these huge events with big puppets – and then a little closer to home, Mervyn and I both remembered the Sultan’s Elephant, which was a huge marionette that went through London in 2006”.
Mervyn: “At Burning Man they have some things that are extraordinary pieces of engineering, made with artistic sensibility – so we knew the opportunity was there to make a piece of sculpture on a massive scale that was also able to move dramatically”.
What were the initial steps in creating Hymen?
Stephen: “The first step in the design process was to research the traditional image of Hymen – surprisingly Hymen turns out to be male, but we decided to make him in to something slightly more androgynous.
“I’ve certainly never designed a huge puppet on this scale. That takes a very particular skill so we got in touch with Mervyn Millar and his company Significant Object, and asked for his help. I’m delighted he came on board”.
Mervyn: “Stephen and Kimberley already had a strong concept when they came to me. They showed me some drawings and asked if what they wanted to create could be done, and whether I could help.
“We did some more drawings, and then we had to work out how we could realise that on stage. We had to work out how the actors would operate it, whilst ensuring it could work reliably for over a year’s worth of performances”.
How did the design process develop?
Stephen: “We had a computer scan of him created, and a full-size polystyrene head, from which we then cast the materials that created the real head. It’s made from a very simple, almost hat-like material called variform, which you can heat and mould and bend over objects. We also had to make the ‘skin’ and the ‘bones’, and the skeleton had to be a metal structure to ensure it was durable. Alongside that we also had a ‘muscle’ layer which was all made in wood”.
Mervyn: “We created smaller versions of Hymen and did some work on the computer, but it’s not until you get the final object in the room, when you can handle it, that you can really begin to understand how the joints are going to move and what kind of adjustment it will need. So there was a lot of experimenting and testing the joints”.
Creating a puppet on this scale must require a lot of people. Can you tell us about who else was involved?
Stephen: “I don’t think we’ve ever built anything quite like it here at the RSC, so with Mervyn’s expert advice and skill we pulled together a team from our Scenic Workshops, who make all our sets and props. Quite early on we learnt we needed carpentry, prop making and scenic painting skills, people who could work with a range of materials, particularly people who worked with metal to advise us on what the joints would be like. It was a wonderfully collaborative process”.
Mervyn: “The RSC has an amazing group of skilled people: brilliant carpenters, painters and metalworkers who’ve got loads of experience, and a technical design team who are willing to take on anything. I have to say the experience was really pleasurable, and the attitude of the staff fantastic.
“One of the reasons I love puppetry is because it brings all the different technologies of the theatre together into one space. It’s got movement, it’s got performance, it’s got design. And it’s always satisfying when everyone’s skills coalesce into this dynamic theatre object”.
When was Hymen integrated into rehearsals?
Mervyn: “Because this puppet is so big, all of the testing of the mechanics had to happen in the workshops. With a smaller puppet, you might make a prototype, send it into the rehearsal rooms and then bring it back onto the workbench and fiddle a bit more. That just wasn’t possible on this project”.
Stephen: “I was keen to try and introduce the puppet into rehearsals as soon as possible, but it became increasingly clear we couldn’t. Our rehearsal rooms in London aren’t big enough or high enough to get him in. We managed to get him ready for the last week of rehearsals when we had moved up to Stratford.
“Before that, the actors had spent weeks and weeks with broomsticks, baskets on sticks and lots of sellotape over things so they could get a sense of how big the puppet was going to be. I’m guessing few quite guessed the scale until we introduced him on their first day in Stratford!”
How are you hoping the audience will react to Hymen?
Mervyn: “It’s a huge figure. It may be made of steel, aluminium, wood, mesh, tissue paper, moss, leaves and all sorts of strange things, but you want the audience to believe in it. When he’s on stage he breathes, looks around the auditorium, and his arms reach out into the space. The audience knows it’s a puppet, but I hope they forget that, and believe the character has come to life”.
Stephen: “I’m hoping audiences will feel the enjoyment, and, if you like, the playfulness of this character, and enjoy that wonderful suspension of disbelief that you can get with puppets – even though we all know they’re inanimate objects!
“It happens in Peter Pan doesn’t it? You know, there’s that wonderful moment where they address the audience and say, “Does anyone believe in fairies?” and anyone will cheer and scream, however cynical they are, however many times they’ve been to the theatre. I certainly got it when I went to watched War Horse. To just experience what is really a few canes and bits of fabric, you utterly believe it’s a living breathing horse. It was great to discover that Mervyn had been a part of that journey too – to work on those puppets, and so then I knew that we were already onto a winner with Hymen.
“There’s just something rather wonderful when the audience buys into it, and they want to believe it’s come alive, and I think for me, that’s the essence of theatre”.