Monday, 3 October 2011

"Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied" - A comment on Shakespeare

Hamlet and the true star of the show :-)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are mine alone, and not necessarily reflected by the theatre company.

I'm not exactly Shakespeare's biggest fan. I have a lot of respect for the bard, he was a prolific author, a great story-teller, and as a writer-in-training I've learned a lot from him. But ask me to go see a Shakespeare production and I'm unlikely to jump at the chance.

So when I got a call from the Galleon Theatre Company asking if I'd be interested in stage managing their upcoming production of Hamlet, I was a little wary. I do have a habit of zoning out during shows once I've been op-ing them for more than a week; not to the extent I miss cues, my brain has usually trained itself to wake up when I hear key-lines, but it takes a very special production to keep my attention throughout an extended run. I didn't expect Hamlet, a show that normally comes in around the four hour mark to be one of those.
At my interview, the producer and director quickly changed my mind. Just the energy and enthusiasm they had for this show was infectious, and as I spoke to them I garnered more about their ideals and values when it comes to theatre. I wanted to do this show.

Bruce Jamieson, the director, and co-founder of Galleon, has an uncanny knack of zoning in on the crucial elements of Shakespeare's works, unpicking the threads and thus slimming down the play to it's core story-lines. This production of Hamlet sees four hours reduced to two and a half (with the interval!) and twenty scenes across five acts reduced to fourteen.

The set design, complimented by Robert Gooch's lighting
To compliment this streamlined script, the design team took it into the gothic-romantic Victorian era. Russell Fisher's set design consists of an intricately detailed, slightly ambiguous image on the back wall that seems to morph with the lighting and changing atmosphere of the play. We've had audience members go up and touch the wall after the show to prove to themselves it is a 2D texture-less painting. The only set dressing is a "stone" bench and two gothic torches. Eleanor Wdowski's costume design gives the gents a dapper edge and the ladies are understatedly glamorous.
All in all, the design transports you to another place and compliments the action without distracting.

Claudius and Gertrude
Now add to this a phenomenal cast. Bruce Jamieson as Claudius is actually scary, unlike many portrayals of the character you get the impression he'd happily handle the problems he must delegate to others himself. Darren (or is that Derek?) Stamford's Horatio is stalwart and endearing; Kevin Millington's Osric deliciously camp; Barry Clarke's Polonious wonderfully funny, intentionally and obliviously; Andrew Leishman's gravediggers apprentice is doting yet moronic; Peter Rae's Laertes stoic and constant to his goals.

Robin Holden has to be applauded in his role as Hamlet. It's a daunting enough task just learning all those soliloquies, but unlike a number of Shakesperian performances I've witnessed, he feels and understands where every word is coming from. Jane Stanton plays Gertrude, and though younger than commonly cast for the part, her grace and modesty shine through as she transitions from love-struck newlywed to doubting and suspicious wife. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern (played by Millington and Leishman respectively) have a delightful dynamic, in synch with each other, but also competing for the influential favour. Currently Guildernstern has Hamlet's favour, it'll be interesting to see if this shifts by the end of the run. You can't help but smile at Elana Martin's Ophelia; she's sweet and a little bit cheeky, which makes her descent into madness all the more distressing.
The gravedigger and her assistant

Of course mention has to be made of Elizabeth Donegan's varied roles in this production. She successfully makes the player queen, Ophelia's lady and the gravedigger very different and lively characters. The same can be said of Christopher Peacock in his roles as the ghost, the player king and the priest.

And Hamlet is not complete without a proper fight. Phenomenally choreographed by Ian McCracken, the intimate nature of the venue means the audience feel the danger of every sweep of the blades.

But where would any show be without the love and support of it's producer. Unlike so many theatre producers, Alice De Sousa is hands-on in the process and is constantly letting the company know that she's enjoying their work, rather than just telling them what needs to be improved. This lady has been a steadfast advocate of the arts for many years, and despite all the hardships the industry has no doubt thrown at her, her passion is unwavering.

The dual between Hamlet and Laertes
In my opinion, this is one production of Hamlet that won't be easily beaten. Yes, I work for the company, call me biased if you want, but I don't rave about the shows I work on that I don't enjoy. Remember what I said above about zoning out during shows after a week? We're three weeks into the run and it's not happened!

I believe this is the direction Shakespeare productions need to move in. I sympathise with the traditionalists who feel it's verging on sacrilegious to edit Hamlet the way it has been here, but in order for the bard to maintain his status, we have to acknowledge that this generation simply don't have the attention span for traditional Shakespeare.

I studied Hamlet at A-level, spent two months scrutinising and analysing the text. When I got asked to work on this production, how much of that did I remember? Not much! I had to go back through the text one night in search of speeches that had been reclaimed in rehearsals and I got lost. Who were these people? What was going on?

Shakespeare was a master at weaving together story-lines, and that's all well and good to have lot's of extra characters and action happening around the main plot, but you'll have more chance of that being appreciated in a novel than a play. In a novel you've got your own time to get your head around who everyone is and what's happening, but when you're seeing a play, you're being bombarded with information from start to finish.

It's understandable that those who do know the plays extremely well may have been slightly jarred by the absence of a scene or the moving of a soliloquy. But ultimately, this generation isn't as aware of Shakespeare as previous generations. That's a sad fact, but entertainment has to evolve in much a similar way as species do. Even with my advantage of being slightly more tuned into the language as a result of taking part in Tudor re-enactments, I find it difficult to engage what's being said in front of me. If you're lucky you get a company who are very in tune with the text and convey it effectively, but woe-betide if you get a company who can give a great dramatic delivery but actually don't know what they are saying.

The same can be said of the world of publishing. Recently I've been reading a number of Victorian novels as research for The Pirate's Daughter, and despite being brilliant stories, having to wade through information dumps and pages and pages of description can be extremely tiring. Modern novels are a lot more streamlined; adjectives, adverbs and similes are frowned upon unless delivered with great skill.

Ophelia in her madness
Ultimately, adaptations like this are the only way to prevent Shakespeare (many generations from now) slipping into obscurity. Galleon Theatre's streamlined production of Hamlet remains true to the core of the story, while being accessible to the new generation.

Hamlet is playing at the Greenwich Playhouse in London until 9th October 2011.
Tickets can be booked here.