Bernhardt/Hamlet Design Statements

Posted on: October 9th, 2018 by Roundabout

Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, and Matthew Saldivar. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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-19th 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.

Set model for Cyrano de Bergerec. Credit: Beowulff Boritt.

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.

Costume Sketch of Sarah Bernhardt. Credit: Toni-Leslie James.

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.

Janet McTeer. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bradley King - Lighting Design
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, are almost two months away. We have met, discussed, and poured over Beowulf's model, discussing our initial thoughts about each scene and how they might play, but all our talk of lighting exists only in our minds. A comfort with the unknown, with the ability to be surprised in the room, truly must be one of a lighting designer's greatest strengths. Will any of these initial thoughts make it onto the stage? I cannot wait to find out!

Fitz Patton - Sound Design and Original Music
The musical world of Bernhardt/Hamlet is synonymous with the world of the orchestra. Which, of course, brings a host of concerns and complexities, as well as rich aural opportunities. The expressive range of the orchestra, its mass and its power, has become a repository for lives lived on an epic scale. The orchestra presents a world that is aurally and visually massive and dimensional. Given that Theresa Rebeck’s play features an intersection of four extraordinary individuals—Sarah Bernhardt, Edmond Rostand, Shakespeare, and the title character in Hamlet—the orchestra suggested to me the power, ambition, tenderness, and courage exemplified by these artists and their work. This was a thrilling discovery because I’ve long wished to return to the orchestra for inspiration. Plays pass through the lives of designers, giving us the opportunity to touch upon aspects of our creative selves in ways that are unique. Bernhardt/Hamlet opened my heart and gave me an instant thrill because it asked me to engage with art and life as boldly and ambitiously as the characters who fill its pages do. If we tell the story well, perhaps you too will look at life from the massive landscape of your exuberant heart. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet

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