Set model designs for Bernhardt/Hamlet

BEOWULF BORITT—SET DESIGN I knew Sarah Bernhardt’s name, of course. But I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much more than that she was a very famous, turn-of-the-20th-century actor. I learned more as I started to research this project. I felt like the set had to hint at some of the breadth and excess of her life. At the same time, she is reported to have been a sublime actress. As the play says, an actor’s fame is written on water, and we can only take her contemporaries’ word that she was a genius actor. In designing the set, I was trying to encompass these two parts of who she was.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the director, and I discussed how an actor speaking a playwright’s words has the power to create an entire world out of thin air. That is the soul of live theatre. We discussed creating a nearly empty black void for the rehearsal scenes where we see Janet McTeer as Sarah speaking parts of Hamlet, creating the world of Hamlet with just words. And we wanted to contrast that with her dressing room, her inner sanctum, which displays the excess and opulence of her life.

We tried many ideas but finally settled on a skeletal world that implies the spaces where the story plays out: Sarah’s theatre, her dressing room, the streets of Paris, and Edmond Rostand’s study. It has enough realism to tell us where we are but also is open and ephemeral enough to fade away into darkness and let us just hear the words. Late in the show we have a brief moment where we see a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, and that’s the one place we are trying to represent late 19th-century stagecraft in all its opulence and glory.

TONI-LESLIE JAMES—COSTUME DESIGN I approached the design of Bernhardt/Hamlet acutely aware of the challenge presented in creating the physical embodiment of the great Sarah Bernhardt as portrayed, in my opinion, by the equally gifted Janet McTeer. I was excited for the opportunity to design late 19th-century costumes in their various environments: rehearsal, studio, and in performance


on stage. The heightened costumes of the 19th-century stage are beautiful, over scale, and somewhat comical to the contemporary eye, which made the design assignment particularly appealing to me. I try to look past the characters of Madame Sarah, Rostand and Constant as historical icons of the theatre and seek to convey the human spirit, to be able to fully communicate the life condition of all the characters through the costumes on the stage. My process begins like every designer—with a great deal of costume research and numerous conversations regarding the vision of the production with the director. I find fabric sourcing the most enjoyable aspect of costume design. The men’s suit fabric of the period is heavy, 15 ounces, and contributes to the beauty of the tailoring in their ability to hold their shape. I was thrilled to find these from a men’s suiting manufacturer in London. The lace for women’s costumes had period-specific patterns in their design, and I found the most amazing laces from a lace manufacturer in Latvia who specializes in making lace for lingerie. Being able to create with fabrics as close to the original 19th-century fabrics as possible was very satisfying.


When Moritz von Stuelpnagel and I first sat down to discuss the designs for Bernhardt/Hamlet, a dreaded theatrical term arose—“magic realism.” This term arises in all sorts of contexts and discussions, usually in graduate school, and hardly anyone can agree on what exactly "magic realism" means. But in our context, the definition became clear: the ability of the light in Bernhardt/Hamlet to remain firmly rooted in a naturalistic reality while still allowing for moments of heightened gestures. This could mean a moonlight that's just a touch bluer than normal, a slightly over-dramatic shaft of backlight in an otherwise empty space, or the ability to play with color and angle in ways that lend tension, romance, and passion to scenes that might not be strictly believable in real life. As I write these words, the beginning of technical rehearsals, which is when I truly begin my job in earnest, is almost two months away. We have met, discussed, and poured over Beowulf's model, discussing our initial thoughts

Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24