Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Hamlet unseen

So we think we "know" Shakespeare because we were force fed it at school and can quote phrase after phrase (Alas poor Yorick, get thee to a nunnery, etc etc etc). But it's not the same as really experiencing Shakespeare up close. On 18 January there was a very special production at the Questors Theatre in Ealing, west London – Hamlet performed in the way that actors in Shakespeare's own time would have presented it. It was completely different – raw, direct, vital.

In Shakespeare's time, printed texts were limited and few had access to complete scripts. Actors were given their lines with a 3-word cue before each of their speeches. They had no idea who would give their cue or how long the interval would be. They had a short Platt or plot, which gave some detail to stage action and the general direction of the narrative but apart from that they were on their own. In this performance, the cast were called together and sworn not to refresh their memories by reading the play or watching films. As in Shakespeare's time, they didn't rehearse together until an hour before the performance. The result ? Hamlet as a "new" experience, edgy, almost improvisational, but fresh.

What fascinated me was the way it threw focus not on illusion of narrative, but on the very process of acting. Since film, we have pseudo realism aplenty, and forget how much art there is in acting. How does a person enter into the spirit of a character who may be very different from himself ? How does he/she express deeper feelings that might not be in the script but can be intuited from how the part relates to the others ? This cast was alert. listening, thinking, feeling, relating what they were doing to what was happening around them. Some of the acting was so natural that the player seemed transformed into the role. For example, Claudius the King. He's a murderer, yet Simon Thomas, who isn't, makes him a rounded, compelling figure. This King has a history – what went on before the action happened ? He's won the queen's love , and he's crippled with anguish, so he's not a simple bad guy. You want to know him better, how he came to where he is. Similarly, Rachel Power as Queen Gertrude keeps us in suspense – just how much was she culpable ? Her love for her son shines through his "madness". As Hamlet himself, Mark Fitzgerald slipped back into "modern" accent but that was good - his Hamlet is all the more convincing as a contempprary figure. There are many real-life Hamlets around these days, and the dilemma is universal.

In the small theatre, audience and players are so close that there's an extra layer of intimacy. People may only be a metre from each other, but they inhabit different spheres. That's why doing the first three Acts of Hamlet was such an inspired idea : the play within a play reminds us life and artifice interact on many levels. Hamlet is using the troupe to force a reaction from the King and Queen. He's pretending to be mad to lull their suspicions. They don't know what game he's playing. We all read the script at school, but being up close and personal like this is completely different. In this kind of performance, anything can happen : we participate almost as much as the actors do. What a rewarding experience - I enjoyed it so much !

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