The making of As You Like It's Hymen, the God of Marriage at the RSC
As the RSC continues its London season at the Barbican, RSC director of design Stephen Brimson and puppetry director and co-designer Mervyn Millar discuss creating the huge God of Marriage Hymen
SBL: 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.
MM: 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.
SBL: I don't think we've ever built anything quite like it 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 learned 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.
MM: 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.
SBL: 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.
MM: 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.