the main action and the design concept

March 16, 2006

I wrote most of this post late last night; finishing it up now. Apologies for the length.

The first meeting with the designers is tomorrow. I’m never sure exactly what to expect at these meetings — it’s different at every theatre. Sometimes I’ve gone in with a fully developed concept for the play, including a rough set design. Other times I’ve gone in with some ideas about the play itself but looking to make the design choices in complete collaboration with the designers. Usually it’s somewhere in between.

Here’s what I have as of now:

The play is famously difficult to narrow down to a single theme or action. Is it about revenge? Ambition? Hesitation? Thinking too much? Is it about family? Loss? Fate? Sin? Death? Of course it’s about all these things and a lot more, but a production of the play has to find a single angle from which to view the whole package. A central action or through-line, a fundamental question that the play asks and the way in which the play answers or at least addresses that question. Something that makes sense out of every scene, that reveals the underlying connection between every character’s superobjective, that places the main character’s journey in a symbolic and thematic context that gives the story its greater meaning. All the choices that a production makes are informed by this understanding of the play — talking productively about the design without having this nailed would be impossible.

So for me, for this production, as of now, the angle from which I can view the whole play is the idea of change. Hamlet is unable or unwilling to accept change, specifically he refuses to accept and move on from his father’s death. The first time we see Hamlet, he is being told to stop mourning, to move on, to accept that his father is dead and that life goes on. Hamlet refuses to do this; in fact, he’s furious that his mother has accepted this change to such an extent that she’s already remarried. When Hamlet is told to revenge by the ghost, he readily agrees — but as soon as the ghost leaves the stage, Hamlet begins to plot and plan his antic disposition and two months pass before he does anything else. I now believe that Hamlet delays his revenge because it would mean accepting his father’s death, and that all the other reasons — including especially the few that he articulates — are merely excuses.

This sets up Hamlet’s fundamental problem. He has two choices. One would be to follow the ghost’s order and kill his uncle. If he does this immediately — as he repeatedly tells us he could despite tardy claims about proving the ghost is real or sending Claudius to hell — the tragic deaths of Ophelia and Gertrude (not to mention Polonius and Laertes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are avoided, and it’s entirely plausible that Hamlet could live through it and even become King. Hamlet’s other option is to decide not to take revenge — in which case nobody dies, and eventually the crown passes to Hamlet anyway. But committing to either of these options would require Hamlet to let go of his father’s death, to accept the change and move on. So Hamlet is stuck, unable to take revenge and unable to decide not to take revenge.

And, of course, the longer he stays stuck in that position the worse the situation gets. His actions and objectives in each scene are all about getting everyone else to stop changing or to stop accepting change. Ophelia rejecting his courtship, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betraying his friendship, and Gertrude being with Claudius all amount to changes that Hamlet tries to fight. When Hamlet runs out of excuses, he finally does take action — only to kill Polonius, who was spying on Hamlet entirely because of Hamlet’s act of madness. All the deaths of the final act are set into motion here. In other words, Hamlet has delayed too long and brought the tragedy down on his own head. Hamlet’s refusal to accept change leads directly to his downfall; it is his tragic flaw.

I haven’t slept on this one yet. We’ll see if I still feel this way tomorrow. But right now it seems like a solid base on which to build, a starting point, a way in to the play. Change. To deny change.

Knowing that the play is about change is a tremendous help in making choices about the design. If Hamlet’s superobjective is to deny change, the design should create a world in transition, a world which is undergoing massive change that Hamlet is unable to stop. The design can provide the obstacle to the action of the play.

The other thing to keep in mind is the theatre itself; the venue and the budget and the audience. Who is the audience? What are they expecting? Is it better to meet or to confound their expectations? Shakespeare-by-the-Sea does two outdoor touring Shakespeare productions every year. I missed the shows last summer because I was up in Berkeley, but I directed a production of The Misanthrope for their indoor wing at the Little Fish Theatre last year so I know a lot of the people and have some idea of what’s expected. The photos on their website all show very colorful Renaissance costumes; this is a family-friendly sort of deal and presumably an audience that isn’t interested in high concept or extreme stylization. The Artistic Director has told me I don’t have to stick to the Renaissance, but I get the idea that this isn’t the time for another post-apocalyptic nightmare production.

So that’s the challenge. A period setting that satisfies this theatre and its audience and their demand for pretty costumes while truly setting up a world in transition, a world consumed with the idea of progress and change. The Industrial Revolution seems like a great answer — progress made manifest in machinery and steam. The cannons that Claudius commands be shot off in celebration of his drinking might connect to this, especially because Hamlet complains about them early in the play only to have Fortinbras order them to shoot as Hamlet’s memorial in the play’s final line. The men can be in waistcoats and tails — and I found a treasure trove of visual research (a book of illustrations by Gustav Doré) that shows the great variety that’s possible with this. I’m also taken with the beautiful and elegant posters of Alphonse Mucha, which are from a later period — but I have no problem mixing up periods a bit, especially to get at an idea of change. So maybe anything between Napoleon and World War One is fair game, keeping it consistent through color and maybe fabric. Old Hamlet’s “armor” could be a uniform from Waterloo, and Fortibras could come in at the end as a World War One soldier. Doré plus the unanchored period gives us the variety we need in order to give the audience visual clues about the characters and to set up the idea of change. Mucha gives us a visual style (for both costumes and sets) that is elegant and beautiful.

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5 Responses to “the main action and the design concept”

  1. Lucas Krech Says:

    a production of the play has to find a single angle from which to view the whole package.

    Why is this? Perhaps some of the difficulty with the play is based in trying to force it into a single perspecitve when it, in fact, must represent various viewpoints simultaneously. Film does this with camera angle and framing, why can’t theatre do the same?


  2. […] Meanwhile, Josh Costello tries to get Hamlet down to one sentence. […]

  3. Zay Amsbury Says:

    Soon as I have room in my brain I’ll give opinion on this, Josh.

    Can you imagine writing something the folks are still talking about 500 years down the pipe?


  4. Josh — What would you say the climax of the play is (by which I mean the moment when the conflict is resolved)?

  5. joshcostello Says:

    Lucas: I’m working on an answer for you. It might turn in to a post on the main page. One quick answer is simply that this is a tool I use as a director that I find extremely useful — it’s not necessarily anything that I need to force the audience to “get”.

    Scott: Hard to argue against Hamlet killing Claudius as the climax. No matter what your take on the play is, the big plot question that the audience wants an aswer to is whether (and how) this will happen. In the take on the play outlined here, you could say that killing Claudius is the moment in which Hamlet accepts his father’s death. “The readiness is all” and most of Hamlet’s behavior in Act V suggests that he knows he has to move on, to accept change (the powerlessness he articulates as God’s will). But finally following the ghost’s command and killing his father’s murderer is the moment he actually accepts change into his life — which he knows is about to end.


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