When Head of Props Construction Alan Fell first heard about the plans for a large sculpture of Hymen, the God of Marriage, to be revealed at the end of As You Like It, he didn't think it would be too big a job: "My initial thoughts were, this looks fairly straightforward. Thinking it was just a flat two-dimensional piece of scenery, I didn’t feel like we would be that involved in it. But it became apparent as the meeting wore on that it was going to become a much more three-dimensional thing, a puppet that would be operated by members of the cast."
An ambitious design
Suddenly, the plan seemed much more ambitious... and complicated. To give the impression of this being a living, breathing god, Hymen had to be made of moving parts that could be operated by the actors on stage. The head and arms needed to move, and the chest go up and down to mimic breathing.
Production designer Stephen Brimson Lewis joined with theatre director and puppet designer Mervyn Millar to find the right look for the puppet. Mervyn came to the project with previous experience of large puppet design, and it was huge sculptures like those used for the Burning Man festival and the Sultan's Elephant marionette that was paraded through London that gave the pair inspiration, as well as the wooden artworks of Bruno Walpoth. Mervyn talks about wanting to make something "monumental", something "that had a real weight to it and a real substance to it... a modern object that could still seem ancient [with] one foot in a traditional world, but one foot in the world of engineering and today."
A team project
Because of the sheer size of the puppet — which is about 5.5 metres high with an arm span of over 11 metres — the team had to build the parts in the Prop Shop then assemble the puppet in the Scenic Workshop. Most team members are used to working alone on individual props, but this brought the whole team together, utilising skills from carpentry to scenic painting. Alan and later Liz Vass led the Props team as they drew out the parts and cut out sheets of timber sections on a CNC machine (where the tool is controlled by a pre-programmed computer). Mervyn also came in at least once a week to ensure that the finished puppet would operate practically and effectively.
Mervyn describes every part of the puppet as "a collaboration". He says: "Each joint and every surface and choice of material is a meeting of minds between the designers and the makers. It's possible to conceive on paper but it needs to be made and held before we really know what will work. So the design process requires the craftspeople in the workshops, and draws on their experience and knowhow."
The design needed to be light enough to manouevre around the stage and for the actors to control, but robust enough to survive life on the road when the production goes on tour. To get this balance right, Alan says that the structure is similar to a World War II plane, built largely out of cloth and timber. The entire model is on wheels so that it can travel up and down the stage, and it has a steel base and light aluminium framework to help with the movement. Other materials used include mesh, tissue paper, and even moss and leaves - in Mervyn's words, "all sorts of strange things."
To Stephen, the puppet becomes more than an inanimate object in the show: "He's completely inanimate, and it requires an actor to put their life force and puppeting skills into making him come alive, and when that happens there is something rather wonderful when the audience literally buy into it – they want to believe it's alive. For me that is the essence of theatre."
Find out more about the making of Hymen with our behind the scenes video below.
See Hymen in As You Like It
in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31 August.