o my offence is rank...
the tragedy of hamlet,
prince of denmark
Tuesday 19 February -
Wednesday 13 March 2002
Zeal, 51 Victoria Street, Wellington
Melancholy varsity student wears black, breaks up with his girlfriend, says "To be or not to be" and meets his father's ghost...you know the rest.
Carey Smith (Hamlet), Eve Middleton (Gertrude), James Stewart (Ghost of King Hamlet, First Player, Gravedigger), Tina Helm (Ophelia), John Porter (Claudius), Mark Cleary (Polonius, Gravedigger's Companion, English Ambassador), Alex Greig (Laertes, Second Player), Erica Lowe (Horatio), Kate Soper (Francisco, Cornelius, Rosencrantz), Hilary Willard (Voltemand, Guildenstern, Osric), Kristin Smith (Barnardo, Reynaldo), Adam McMahon (Marcellus, Third Player, Fortinbras)
Production Manager Eve Middleton; Stage Manager Mark Cleary; Video sequences edited by Robert Gordon & Mark Cleary; Super-8 sequence cameramen Carey Smith & James Stewart; Super-8 sequence edited by Ian Freer & James Stewart; Posters Ian Freer & James Stewart; Photography David Lawrence & Sar Ruddenklau; Fliers James Stewart; Danish Crest designed by Sar Ruddenklau; Recording engineer Carey Smith; Music David Lawrence & George Harrison; Fight Choreography by Geoff Pinfield; Directed by David Lawrence
When I thought I was going to be an actor, I always dreamed of playing Hamlet. It was going to be my greatest triumph, the end result of years of research and planning, mental and physical preparation. Even the first time I read the play, I learnt little phrases and kept them in my mind. I often used "O what a rogue and peasant slave" as an audition piece and got to perform it for an ENGL208 lecture in a staging of the latter half of the second act, in which I Played The Dane. I became obsessed with the play at university and spent a week of one study break in the video suite at the theatre & film department watching all the films - Olivier, Zefarelli, Kozintsev, Jacobi in the BBC television version. One of the very earliest theatre reference books I had, given to me when I was about 7, was The Facts About A Theatre Company, a book dealing specifically with the Prospect touring production in which Jacobi Played The Dane. I now have a pile of books dealing with the play and the role and I've read most of them from cover to cover again and again. I particularly loved Kenneth Branagh's accounts of his encounters with the play in his autobiography, Beginning, and when his four-hour film version finally reached NZ, I spent each consecutive Tuesday afternoon that freezing Wellington winter huddled in the Embassy, where tickets were $6 before 5pm, sitting through the epic.
I was 15 when I first read Hamlet. I had a girlfriend who was obsessed with Shakespeare and thought Romeo and Juliet was the greatest play ever written and insisted upon my reading it and loving it. I tried and tried but could never quite get into the spirit of it, but one depressed evening that awful year I shut myself away from all the other merry party-goers on one of those dreadful teenage evenings and, instead of Romeo and Juliet, I opened her copy of Hamlet, if for no other reason than that the skull on the cover artwork seemed to fit my morbidity that night. My father died suddenly a few weeks after my 15th birthday and I spent much of the following twelve months in a very strange state of mind. That night that I read The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark I experienced an epiphany of sorts - this play was speaking to me on a level that none of my family, friends, teachers, guidance counsellors were able to; here, for the first time, was someone who knew exactly what I was going through and was able to offer me some solace. The notion of a man who goes crazy because his father dies was not a far-fetched one to me, and that has always been my first point of reference with Hamlet. I was surprised to discover that a character who seemed so quintessentially teenage would turn out to be 30 years old.
I first thought about directing the play at the start of my last year of university. I imagined staging a few of the scenes in the round, jotted down some ideas, thought about where I might make cuts. That year a fellow student and I directed the course production for DRAM301, an adaptation of Tony Harrison's version of The Mysteries, staged at Studio 77. It was a promenade production - partly as homage to the medieval notion of pageant-wagons as performance platforms, and partly to make the distinction between each of the three segments of the show as clear as possible. The audience viewed The Creation in a proscenium arch set-up, were then shifted into a tight traverse in the main space for The Passion, and then left to wander through an empty space for Doomsday. I loved the possibilities of promenade and the effect that it had on the audience's enjoyment of the show. I always intended that when I did Hamlet it would be in a space big enough to set up all the different layers of society within the world of the play. The space I was really keen on was Wellington Repertory Theatre's home on Dixon St, which that very year was renamed the Phoenix and opened up as a general performance venue. As well as a traditional proscenium arch space they had a great long narrow room on the top floor, a covered carpark and other areas that I thought would suit my purposes well. Oddly enough, the first great success the venue had as the Phoenix was, lo and behold, a promenade production - not of Hamlet, but doing a similar-enough thing that it made the idea of me doing the play there unfeasible.
When The Bacchanals did Othello and the trilogy of Renaissance plays we borrowed chairs from Zeal, a building on Victoria Street that had just started operating as an under-age venue for teenagers. Eve knew the folk running the place, which was how we'd organized the chair deal. I'd seen a Fringe play in there but not even really been aware of the whole building until the last night of Othello - Eve and I waited in Zeal between truck-loads when we were returning the chairs in the middle of the night, and with only the briefest look-around the space I knew I had found the perfect space for my Hamlet. A big downstairs space, an upstairs mezzanine for a traverse space, smaller rooms for the closet scene and gantries and ladders running around the fire exits and alleyway outside. I don't know that I said anything that night, but from there on in Hamlet joined the list in my head of upcoming Bacchanals projects. On the second-to-last night of Wealth and Hellbeing, Carey, James, Eve, Tina and I had drinks outside the Pit at Bats. The trilogy was about to begin itself - that night I showed them the first potential casting charts - and that same night I outlined my battleplan for The Bacchanals for the next year and a half, and it included a promenade Hamlet at Zeal in the 2002 Fringe, with Carey playing the title role. During the trilogy Eve and I had preliminary talks with the Zeal people, who were very keen, and Hamlet became a topic of discussion most nights as we boozed after the trilogy plays.
It's difficult to know where to even begin with a play like Hamlet. When I've taught this play in classes it's seemed to me that even if I had 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, I couldn't cover all the things there are to say about what must be Shakespeare's very best play. There is almost too much in it to ever be able to do it real justice. In my theatregoing I've always come out of Hamlet saying "Well, they didn't really touch on that element...or they ignored that aspect..." but I found rehearsing our production that it is so complex and overwhelming that you eventually have to make the decision to abandon some facets in order to concentrate more on others. I came to the conclusion that no production of Hamlet could ever really encompass everything going on in the play; it's just too big.
With Hamlet being The Bacchanals' third Shakespeare, we were facing a Catch-22 in the way we did things. To apply a directorial concept would have been at the risk of disappointing those who commended the simplicity of the way we usually did things, but to the same extent there'd be those who saw Othello and Titus Andronicus saying "Oh god, not another plain clothes, no set, fast moving/speaking Shakespeare..." With Othello I had a specific agenda on accent and verse-speaking rather than any take on the play. With Titus I believed that, as a play few theatregoers would be familiar with, we had a responsibility to deliver it in as straightforward a manner as possible - directorial concepts are for plays people are already well-acquainted with. It would be a cheat to do Hamlet with no plan in mind.
I had a few things I was keen to get across. Firstly, I wanted it to be a play where every character was important, not just Hamlet. I wanted to be able to come away from it remembering which character was Rosencrantz and which one was Guildenstern. I developed a 'concept' that seemed to work for me and for the feel I wanted - that Hamlet, like me, is an adult who never leaves university. At the start of the play he's come back to Denmark from university in Wittenberg and when Claudius says "For your intent on going back to school in Wittenberg, it is most retrograde to our desire" and begs him not to leave, Hamlet's bags are packed and he's on his way to the railway station. Horatio - who if we take the text literally, must be a man in his 50s (he obviously has nothing better to do if he can spend months waiting around in Denmark - the action of the play, after all, takes several months to play out - and he says in IV.vi "I do not know from what part of the world I should be greeted if not from Hamlet" - so he has no family or dependants elsewhere) - leaves Wittenberg the moment he hears of the remarriage. At the start of the play when the sentinels welcome Horatio, they're welcoming him to Denmark, not the watch - the idea being that Horatio has virtually just stepped off the plane and been picked up at the airport by Marcellus, who tells him about the ghost. How do Hamlet and Horatio know Marcellus, Barnardo and the like? Because they too are current or ex-Wittenberg students ("friends, scholars and soldiers") - in our version of the play, the threat of terrorist action from Fortinbras means Claudius has everyone doing the equivalent of National Service. Semester ends and the King calls for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come out on their study break. And rather than being like the RSC or some touring company, I'd always seen the Players as being Hamlet's friends from varsity who study theatre & film and do shows at Bats - it's no chance event that the Players come to Elsinore - Hamlet invites them. When he asks the First Player "Can you play The Murder of Gonzago?" he's saying "Well? Did you get my message?" The kind of Elsinore we were imagining was a place where students hang out in their holidays - rather than Hamlet being the outsider, the likes of Claudius and Polonius and Gertrude are the only adults in a town full of students, trying to run the kind of government or monarchy that none of these students care about. A big part of this too was the whole Fortinbras thing - the reason Hamlet and Fortinbras speak highly of each other is because they know each other. In the world of our production, Wittenberg was the university that all the royals and prime ministers sent their children to. Fortinbras turns up at the end at Hamlet's request - he's asked him for help. Regardless of how much of it came across or even ended up being used in the show, these were the premises we worked from to make the story clear in our heads. And what was amazing for us as a group is that motive, psychology etc was all unlocked by developing such a complex back-story for ourselves. Hamlet is not procrastinating in the two months' gap between Acts I and II; he's waiting for the Players to turn up, because this is the chief part of his plan to prove the King's guilt.
I had several possible options when it came to casting the play but from the outset it was clear that Carey would play Hamlet and Eve the Queen. Alex, who'd worked so hard under less-than-ideal circumstances in Othello and the Trilogy, more than deserved the opportunity to show how good he really is with Laertes. I'd wanted Tina to play Horatio - for some reason I'd always been keen on the idea of Horatio played by a woman, just to make Hamlet and Horatio's friendship a little more ambiguous - but she had her heart set on Ophelia, so I swapped her and Erica in my planned casting charts. I could see different virtues in John, Mark or James as Polonius and in Mark or John as the King. All three of them wanted to play the Ghost, however (and John tried to argue that he should be allowed to double the King and the Ghost, thus taking two good roles!). Mark didn't care who he was, provided he got to play the English Ambassador (because he wanted to be the one to say "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"!) and I even toyed with the idea of playing the Ghost myself. In the end I opted for John as the King, Mark as Polonius and James in roles that would be completely different to anything he'd done before - the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger. I wanted a strong double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - a pair with the presence of Taika and Jemaine (which would have been a fantastic piece of casting, especially opposite Carey). It became apparent that the roles would be played by women - not a bad option given the university backstory we'd developed. Kate Soper, who'd been such a welcome and amazing presence during the Trilogy, had auditioned for drama school but been declined - in fact, when asked by the audition panel, "What will you do if you don't get in?" she said "If I don't get in, that'll be great, because then I can be in Hamlet!" I cast Kate as Rosencrantz and initially offered Jocelyn and then Judith the chance to play Guildenstern. Both passed...but the perfect option was under my nose the whole time.
In 1995 when Carey and I first met, working on BodyPlay (a university drama club show directed and conceived by Duncan Sarkies), one of the cast members was an American exchange student called Hilary Willard. Carey and Hilary became a couple during the run of the show and lived together until she returned to the US at the end of that year. Carey was utterly miserable without her and literally spent years pining for her. Even when, towards the end of 1997, he declared "I've finally resigned myself to the fact that she's never coming back and I've got to get on with my life" he still never really got over it and was unable to give subsequent girlfriends what they felt they deserved. "It's nothing to do with you personally," I told more than one broken-hearted woman between 1995 and 2001, "it's just that you're not Hilary, and for Carey no one will live up to the standards Hilary set." Amazingly, Hilary turned up in New Zealand on holiday the week that the Trilogy opened. Within weeks the Carey I had known six years earlier had suddenly returned, and in what seemed like a whirlwind period of time, Carey and Hilary were a couple again and set a date for their wedding (which took place in May 2002, two months after the last performance of Hamlet). I had thought from the outset that Hilary would be great in Hamlet but was not sure how she and Carey would feel about working together - or indeed how Hilary would feel, having not acted in years. But it was Carey who suggested to me "Maybe Hilary could be in the show?" at exactly the point that I was thinking what a great idea it would be...and she and Kate made a fantastic team as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Hilary also wanted to play Osric as a Texan oil merchant - a far better idea than my original one of Osric being the Norwegian spy who lets Fortinbras' army in through the back door.
I'd worked out that we needed 14 actors to do the full text but we made do with 12. Adam McMahon worked at Rialto with James, Erica and some of Eve's flatmates. When he'd come to see Titus Andronicus during the Trilogy, his mobile phone rang twice during the performance and we always had him on about it. We rehearsed Hamlet before Christmas 2001 with ten actors, intending to pick up four 'spear carriers' in January. On New Years' Eve at Boston Terrace, Adam offered to do absolutely anything he could to help out with the show - so I decided to cast him as Marcellus. Kristin Smith was the younger sister of an old school friend of mine and Mark's - eight years old when the Wellington High School Shakespeare Society (where I directed my first show aged 17) was founded in 1992, in 2001 Kristin played Rosalind in As You Like It for the Society's tenth year. Kristin had seen our shows and was thrilled to be able to play any part when it was mentioned that we needed spear carriers.
Hamlet was easily the happiest rehearsal experience of all The Bacchanals' shows, and not just because we were able to be in the venue for three full weeks before the show opened, planning exactly how every facet of things would work. Gone were the egos and troublemakers of the Trilogy - the thirteen of us had a ball in each other's company, there were no moments of difficulty or disagreement, and I spent pretty much all day every day with an inane grin, thinking "I'm rehearsing a production of Hamlet!!" We'd get to Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a man" exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and I'd start laughing for no reason. The actors would stop and say "What is it?" and I'd have to respond, "Nothing, really...it's just that I can't believe I'm actually rehearsing this play!!" On the day of the preview I ran into someone in town who commented, "You do not look like a man whose Hamlet is opening tomorrow!" I was in a constant state of calmness, relaxation and excitement because I was so happy with the way the show was going - and for the first time I didn't care what people/audiences/reviewers thought of it - which was probably just as well. I knew on opening night that the reviews weren't going to be great - and the opening night was not a good show - but I did not care.
The poster for the show was a great source of inspiring confidence. Carey had suggested jokingly, given the 'student' backstory we'd developed, that a poster parodying Scarfies but with Denmark colours rather than Otago University's might be eye-catching and witty. Furthermore, we rationalized that it would make us look a bit less anal as well - after all, Hamlet is about as high-art as theatre gets, so we wanted something that suggested it wouldn't be all doom and gloom (in the same way that Simon Bennett's production of the play at Bats years and years ago had called it Hamlet! with the exclamation mark to emphasize that it was a play full of action and excitement). The poster looked magnificent and was also the first to feature the 'official' Bacchanals logo - an illustration from a kylix eye krater of Dionysus at sea having transformed attacking pirates into dolphins. We wanted an appropriate but funny Latin motto. Mark was keen on Non compos mentus (or something like that, meaning "Not mentally competent") but we settled on Hic et ubique, Hamlet's exclamation when the Ghost is swearing under the stage in I.v. Even though it was nonsense - "Here and everywhere?" - we were able to see a funny logic to it, given that we were doing a show in which the audience shifted 17 times. Eve and I picked the posters up from the printers' on our way back to a rehearsal and they lifted the general spirits of all in the show, they looked so magnificent and red. They stood out a mile away and over the six weeks they were about, people would phone to say "They were interviewing someone on the 6pm news tonight and you could see Hamlet posters over the road from the person!" and similar comments. Even people who didn't get the Scarfies parody loved the eye-catching posters. Two days out from the end of the season, I was crossing the street in town and saw Duncan Sarkies - Scarfies' screenplay writer - opposite me at the intersection. As he came towards me I was dreading threats of law-suits for plagiarism/mockery etc...instead he beamed a huge grin and said "You have to give me copies of that poster, it's so funny!"
Hamlet opened with a film sequence shot on Super-8 and parodying the wonderful opening of Orson Welles' film of Othello, which starts with the funerals of Desdemona and Othello and their coffins being carried along the Cyprus battlements. It's the best bit of the film. We shot our black & white 8mm funeral of King Hamlet, followed by a funeral procession carrying his corpse through the deserted streets of Wellington, in the early hours of the morning so as to get a completely empty city. The idea was that you'd see Gertrude, Claudius, and the rest of the funeral party begin up at Parliament or the city cathedral and march through Lambton Quay, along the waterfront, through Civic Square, down Victoria Street, through the back fire exit of Zeal and suddenly appear onstage. We encountered a few obstacles - one was that, because we had not obtained clearances, we were removed from parliament by security guards before we'd got any footage. We'd known this would probably happen, even at 7am, so we started on the steps of St Paul's instead. The greater obstacle was the development process for Super-8 - the day we were expecting both films back, we found that Kodak hadn't even sent them out of the country and that they'd been sitting on a shelf in Auckland for two weeks. James did some emergency package-couriering and made toll calls to Melbourne, and fingers crossed, the black and white film would be back in NZ a few days before opening night. The colour film on the other hand...sure enough, the black & white film arrived with days to spare and, miracle of miracles, all the major shots we needed were on it. Unfortunately, while it looked great, we had none of the Civic Square or approach to Zeal footage, so the transition as the actors walked off screen and onto stage never had the impact I'd hoped it might.
Nor did the music I wrote to go with the funeral, which needed a dozen strong voices to carry it off - but with Carey not part of the procession, James operating the projector and then clattering upstairs to position himself as the Ghost and me not actually in the production, we were lacking in some of our stronger male singers and the piece never sounded as impressive and scary as the Gregorian chant we opened and closed Titus Andronicus with. We tried to introduce the promenade thing right from the outset and made the audience join the funeral procession as it made its way upstairs into the traverse space for the first scene. The sentinels had giant long martial arts-killing sticks Adam had borrowed for us, whereas James had borrowed body armour and a helmet and cape. I wanted a big scary ghost - to contrast with the very human ghost in I.v - but we probably needed bigger special effects to pull it off. What was funny about the Zeal space was that due to the nature and placement of the technical equipment, any lighting or sound effects upstairs had to be cued by hand signals to whoever was downstairs at the lighting/sound desks. The show's most sudden lighting change, when the Ghost entered the Closet scene (III.iv) had Kate in the doorway signalling Hilary at the top of the staircase signalling Adam halfway down the staircase signalling Alex at the bottom of the staircase signalling Kristin in the doorway to the main space signalling Tina on the lighting desk. In the first scene, the sound of a crowing cock to cue the Ghost to leave was often late because, even posted on the stairs, the actors doing the signalling could not always hear the lines clearly. One night the squawking noise sounded a lot nearer than normal and, sitting in the audience, I thought, "That wasn't the cd, was it?" Sure enough, Hilary had given the hand-signal but when no noise was forthcoming and James was stuck on stage, she'd made the crowing noise herself!
While the first scene took place upstairs, downstairs everyone else was silently setting out the 80-or-so seats so that when the audience came back down for I.ii and I.iii, the space was completely transformed to what it had been when the show started. Until Act IV all the downstairs scenes were in the round. Air raid sirens told them when to move. I always thought the actors' story-telling skills in this early part of the play were extraordinary - I used to hang off every word of the Hamlet and Horatio scene at the end of I.ii, which I thought was great. The same with the Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia - I.iii - which was one of my favourites. I was determined we would not have a buffoon Polonius so Mark and I deliberately came up with a reading on Polonius that we thought removed the doddery old man clichés but still allowed the character to get laughs. Mark was so understated with most of Polonius' famous 'advice' to Laertes that I often used to have a wee tear in my eye when he got to "This above all - to thine own self be true" because it sounded so natural and human. And then he'd turn all that tenderness on its head when he interrogated Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. Mark would underplay it so that the audience were relaxed, then it gradually became more serious and menacing and finally he'd snap and scream, "Ay, springes to catch woodcocks!" slamming a pile of folders down on the boardroom table. If you put this scene in slow motion on the video recording, you see the spray of spit flying again and again, dousing poor Tina.
The audience shifted back upstairs for I.iv and then into the tiny upstairs space for I.v. What we found early on was that many scenes or sequences ended with lines like "Come, let us go in together", "Let's follow, I pray", "O, come away" etc - lines that could easily become actors instructing the audience rather than characters interacting. My favourite transition would be watching, on a good night, the way the audience responded to Erica and Adam's impassioned end to I.iv - Adam would yell "Nay, let's follow him!" as they both gestured to the audience. Some nights the audience would leap to their feet in urgency to follow Adam and Erica into the next space as quickly as they could.
I was determined in I.v to make the Ghost as human as possible, so he got rid of his helmet. The idea was that Hamlet's been chasing the Ghost all night before they finally reach the Ghost's 'cave' where the Ghost finally talks to him. I wanted the Ghost to be able to physically touch Hamlet and it worked out that the Ghost left his sword behind for Hamlet to later try and kill the King with in III.iii. We set up a couple of small pools of light and James sat in one, while Carey stood in the other. They both stayed absolutely still while James delivered the Ghost's wonderful lines and then, when describing the actual murder, the Ghost acted it out - James would move towards Carey and grab him by the head, demonstrating the poisoning. We borrowed an idea from Campbell Scott's film of Hamlet (in which Michael Imperioli from my all-time favourite TV show, The Sopranos, plays Guildenstern...or is it Rosencrantz?) of the Ghost's touch almost burning Hamlet's flesh, so that when James touched Carey and gripped him hard, Carey would go into convulsions. At the end, before leaving the scene, after saying "Adieu, adieu, remember me," the Ghost reached out again, Hamlet flinched, fearing a similar pain, but instead this time the Ghost would kiss him gently on the forehead. For what was one of the most crucial scenes for me - not just in terms of the play but also my own father-son angst - this moment was so important and I don't know how many times I sat there in the dark crying during this bit.
From thereon it was back out into the traverse space for the swearing on the sword, then downstairs until the first interval. The play seems to change gear a bit with the Reynaldo scene. With the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship, we decided that they've grown up together, always been good friends, spent many $2 pint nights at the pub together during university talking politics and philosophy, and things had always been ambiguous until King Hamlet's death, during which time Hamlet had sought solace and comfort from Ophelia. But the revelation of murder has screwed everything up for Hamlet and his mother's remarriage means he feels he can't trust anyone female - when he says "We are arrant knaves all" in III.i, he's telling her, "Look, all these crazy things I've found out (ghost, murder etc) are bigger than anything else I can cope with, including our relationship." Mark's absolute seriousness in II.ii used to get him some very good laughs. Early on in rehearsals we decided it would be nasty to have Ophelia onstage during the sequence where Polonius talks of Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship and relates the letters Hamlet's sent his daughter. Once the scene changed tone and became a lot funnier, Ophelia's presence there became redundant but in rehearsal there were some horrible, horrible moments with Polonius and Claudius treating her like she was nothing. The epitome of this was always, when she is devastated and crying at the end of III.i, Mark would say "You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said, we heard it all," with a "Good girl!" tone and then pat her condescendingly on the head.
Hamlet's letter became, in our production, an answerphone message Polonius played back to the King and Queen, with Hamlet singing and playing his guitar over the phone to Ophelia. With smart audiences we were able to get a cheap laugh when Hamlet on the answerphone says, "Thine evermore dear lady, whilst this machine is to him". For Hamlet's feigned madness, Carey wore a singlet and pyjamas (homage to Mark Rylance's RSC Hamlet of the late 80s), and also a blanket - inspired by the homeless 'Blanket Man' well known to anyone who hangs around Cuba Mall. What provided a moment of serious bizarreness during the season was that Kate one day got talking to Blanket Man on the street and invited him to come and see the show. During I.v that night I was aware of the curtain rustling by the entrance to the Ghost's 'cave' and turned to see Blanket Man sitting in the corner. He stayed for the whole show, sitting in the background rather than with the rest of the audience.
II.ii is my favourite part of the play and if there was one scene that was never ever flat or uninteresting, it was this one. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's arrival would always jumpstart the play on nights where the first act had been slow or flat and I loved their reunion with Hamlet. We played the whole discussion of Fortune as though this were a well-known comic routine for them all - we likened it to members of the Monty Python club meeting in the university Quad and automatically quoting lines and scenes at each other. Hilary's marvellous feigned hysterical laughter during "What a piece of work is a man" always lightened a potentially burdened moment - the "famous speech alert" I always used to note in my copies of the plays when I was a teenager. I love the whole arrival of the Players and their performance of the Pyrrhus speech. I always hated seeing Hamlets who fumbled over the lines or didn't know how the speech was supposed to go (witness Campbell Scott or Kenneth Branagh) - if Hamlet is the great academic and eternal student the text purports him to be, then it should be that - like me with these plays - he knows every word by heart. It's like a university lecturer with a visiting guest actor saying to the class, "Here's how the speech begins...and now I'll let Mr Gielgud do the rest."
We went with an alternate reading of the 'To be or not to be' speech, playing it to be about murder rather than suicide. Carey played it with a rapier in hand to emphasize the point. I wanted as many references to Hamlet's swordsmanship as possible, so that it didn't seem like a complete surprise when he says "I have been in continual practice" to Horatio in the final scene.
One of the major staging problems for me was finding a new way of playing the "Where's your father?" moment in Hamlet and Ophelia's scene together. It seemed like a cheat to just adopt the usual business to convey that Hamlet knows they're being spied on - the King or Polonius coughing, or Hamlet aware that there's someone on the other side of the two way mirror. I was very pleased with the piece of business I devised - initially it was intended as a joke on the audience and then solved a major problem. I thought it would be nice to have a cellphone ring in the audience during II.ii to herald Polonius' entrance - I liked the thought that the audience and onstage actors would all think someone hadn't turned their mobile off, and then suddenly Polonius steps out from the audience and you realize it's a gag. It used to get quite a good laugh when Mark came onstage, phone to his ear, to announce "The ambassadors from Norway, good my lord, have returned". As I was plotting the gag out, it then occurred to me that we could repeat the gag during the First Player's speech - have the cellphone ring at the point where Polonius interrupts the Player. It meant "This is too long!" was Polonius' petty defence when everyone glared angrily at him for taking the call. It was actually as I was explaining these two gags to Mark before a rehearsal that the crucial one occurred to me - as I was saying "We ought to find a third place to use it - maybe when the King wants to know where Hamlet's hidden the body in IV.iii it could ring offstage?" I suddenly realized we could have the phone ring in III.i while he and the King spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, as the catalyst for Hamlet's "Where's your father?"
The "remembrances" that Ophelia returned to Hamlet weren't letters; they were all the books and cds he'd loaned or gifted her. We'd decided that the songs she sings in IV.v when mad were 'their' songs and in addition to Tina's live performances of snippets of the tunes in IV.v, we made a full recording of "How should I your true love know", with Kate's partner Jacob playing drums, his friend Gareth on bass, me playing guitars and Tina singing, with backing vocals from Eve and I. The idea was to have a Portishead-sounding track, and we played it at the end of III.i, the scene that heralded the first interval, while Ophelia sat alone and dejected on stage.
After the first interval, we began III.ii in Zeal's foyer - the Players would come out and set up in the foyer and start doing their warm-ups (we wanted to deliberately take the piss out of wanky warm-up processes - and amusingly the Players settled on a similar piss-take, adopting a "Lion face! Lemon face!" routine from the film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back which was playing at Rialto at the time). When the audiences' attention seemed suitably refocused, Hamlet would enter and deliver the advice to the players before leading the audience back into the main downstairs space for the performance of The Murder of Gonzago. Keeping in the Dumb Show made the whole scene worthwhile - it was so funny. In the proper play, Adam as the Player Poisoner was dressed identically to John as Claudius, so that the point was not missed. The audience were shifted back into the foyer for III.iii - John performed "O my offence is rank" on the metal staircase, with the audience gathered around him. Then it was upstairs for the Closet Scene.
III.iv was the first scene we rehearsed and, like the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost, was for me one of the lynchpins of the play. This scene just got better and better, even though by the time the show opened I thought it would have had nowhere new to go, we'd thrashed it so much - and yet every night it was superb. The Ghost's 'cave' had been turned into Gertrude's closet. A nice multimedia gimmick was the television set - we filmed footage which we edited into a 60 Minutes-style piece about the present political situation in Denmark, showing snippets of Gertrude and Claudius' wedding (in the Begonia House at the Botanic Gardens!), Claudius addressing a press conference and then partaking in an in-depth interview. The idea was that Gertrude was watching something like Nightline when Hamlet comes in, and it was devised solely so that when Hamlet said, "Look here upon this picture, and on this" he could contrast his prized photograph of King Hamlet with the television footage of Claudius. When the Ghost entered, Mark (dead behind the arras) was able to unplug the video at the wall so that suddenly the television screen was covered in static. Because we never knew how long it would take the audience to get upstairs and into the space, 5 minutes of a Judy Garland film was tacked onto the front as a lead-in to the Nightline-style show. On opening night the amount of time needed was badly over-estimated and the whole gimmick backfired - by the time the Ghost entered, the footage was only just reaching the start of the specially recorded stuff, and Carey had to bluff in absence of any actual image of the King.
Back out to the traverse set-up for the brief IV.ii, and then the audience went downstairs for IV.iii, by which time the seating in the main space had been rearranged into a proscenium arch set-up. I liked the idea of Claudius turning nasty once he thought the Queen was out of the way, so when Hamlet kept giving him smart-arse answers, he ended up punching him. We rehearsed this with just John and Carey and it was fantastic seeing the absolute shock the other actors got the first time John and Carey incorporated the punch into a full run-through.
I'd always intended to do something a bit different with IV.iv - firstly that it would be set in an airport/ferry departure lounge, and secondly that it would involve Hamlet working the Danish crowd at the airport/harbour a bit. I liked the idea that "How all occasions do inform against me!" should be delivered to all the surrounding people so that Hamlet is basically telling everybody of the King's treachery as he is herded off towards the plane/boat, the premise being that he primes everyone for the return of Laertes, who then has to do hardly any work to amass an army for his revolution. The other thing that worked nicely in this scene, which was staged in the Zeal foyer, was the CNN-style footage of Fortinbras' army playing on the three giant TVs that sat in the corner of the foyer. I made a cameo as a BBC World newsreader telling of the 20,000 troops massing on the Danish border, which we accompanied with World War II footage of trucks and tanks preparing for battle, and topped off with scratchy images of Fortinbras, in front of a rock somewhere in the Middle East, saying "Go captain, from me greet the Danish king!" down the barrel of the camera. Hamlet emerged from the toilets and asked the other passengers all the questions he asks the captain in the text. We had regular tannoy announcements of "This is a final boarding call for all passengers for the S.S. Mosca, sailing from Elsinore, Denmark to Southampton, England" to complete the atmosphere. At the end of the scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern dragged Hamlet out through the main doors of Zeal and into the night as the second interval began.
For much of the last third of the play Carey was upstairs asleep while the action carried on downstairs. In the main space the others held the fort. IV.v was a surprisingly lovely scene to work on - I'm not usually interested in Ophelia's madness but Tina reasoned it as the only real option Ophelia had left. We likened it to the people who suddenly go to pieces come exam-time - just a general stress explosion. The songs worked very well. One critic claimed that in soft-singing Tina robbed the songs of their 'shock value' but their purpose is to make the audience cry, not to shock them. I remember one run of the play a few weeks out from opening night. Tina was singing the final song and I looked at the other onstage actors to see that Kate, Erica, Kristin and Eve were all in tears, which set me off as well.
Our only tampering with the text in Hamlet was IV.vi. I made the decision - really to play a joke on people who knew the play - to ignore the scene in the traditional text and go instead with the equivalent scene in the First Quarto. The First Quarto of Hamlet was an illegal publication constructed from the memory of the bit-part actor who played Marcellus - his are the only lines that correspond closely with those in the 'authorized' text published by Shakespeare's company. In the notorious First Quarto, Hamlet says "To be or not to be - ay, there's the point", Polonius is called Corambis, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become Rossencraft and Gilderstone. The plot is condensed but identical, with one exception: in place of Horatio receiving a letter from Hamlet about the pirates that intercept his voyage to England, the First Quarto features a scene in which Horatio tells the Queen of Hamlet's return and the Queen confirms that she knows Claudius murdered her first husband. I opted with this scene partly for its novelty value but also because, while I don't believe such a scene ever existed, what its inclusion in the First Quarto suggests is that it was implicit in performance that the Queen turned on Claudius after the closet scene. Eve, Erica and I rehearsed the scene in secret and inserted it into the first full run of the play - and none of the other actors even noticed, to my dismay! Nor, I think, did most of the audiences.
After IV.vii, the audience went upstairs one final time for V.i. Mark and James often took their ad-libbing a little too far, Mark in particular openly ignoring Hamlet's advice to the Players - "Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them"! But even I wouldn't have been able to resist, the night where in the midst of the First Gravedigger's word-trickery James' spade completely and unexpectedly fell apart, leaving him holding just the handle, Mark's quick-as-lightning quip of "Dig with that, you bastard!"
Finally it was downstairs for the final scene. Ever since first conceiving of directing or performing a Hamlet, I'd had the idea that Hamlet & Horatio would be getting in some fencing practise at the start of this scene - so that when Hamlet says to Osric, "It is the breathing time of day for me" (meaning "I'm ready for some exercise") he means it literally, as he's already masked up and been fighting a few rounds. Geoff Pinfield, another ex-Wellington High School student, who'd played Young Siward when I directed Macbeth aged 17, and Caliban in a production of The Tempest I directed for an amateur group a few years later, choreographed a great final fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. The finale of Hamlet is a bizarre one when you consider the other tragedies - wars, battles, murders, fights-to-the-death...whereas Hamlet ends with a gentlemanly fencing match that goes wrong. Productions that use broadswords (or even knives, as in one appalling production I saw in Sydney in 1997 that basically ripped off Steven Berkoff's production wholesale, presumably thinking there wouldn't be many people about who'd read his book) are wrong and completely miss the point of the ending - it is a contest, a competition between Hamlet and Laertes, and Hamlet doesn't enter into it thinking anything will come of it other than the opportunity to make amends with Laertes. The irony is he's so certain his death is nigh that he goes into the fencing match blindly thinking "It'll pass the time until death catches me" and not even aware of the potential danger.
On the nights when the series of events surrounding the poisoned cups worked as precisely as they needed to, I was absolutely gripped by how good this moment of the play can be, especially having sat through so many productions where the audience roars with laughter when the King says "It is the poisoned cup! It is too late!" To his credit, John was only laughed at once during the whole season, and even then it was only a giggle rather than the gales of laughter that can totally deflate moments of potential tension (and did so some nights during our Titus Andronicus). The idea behind the King's death for us was that the whole kingdom by that stage was aware of what was going on - Hamlet delivering "How all occasions" to a crowd of onlookers, Horatio telling Gertrude about the King's treachery in the scene from the First Quarto, and similar events having a knock-on effect so that by the last few scenes everyone knows what Claudius is capable of - so when Hamlet stabs the King and then forces him to drink the remainder of the poison all his servants and attendants stand by, making no move to protect him. Some nights Horatio helped Hamlet hold the King down while the poisoned wine was forced down his throat.
We were never able to crack the kind of ending I wanted with the arrival of Fortinbras. The original idea of Osric being the spy who lets the army in through the back door proved implausible, as did the 'infiltrated Norwegian agents' idea we tried. The idea was that when Hamlet says "What warlike noise is this?" Osric would announce the arrival of Fortinbras as though it were the codeword for all hidden agents to reveal themselves, and in unison everyone onstage would draw weapons or something to indicate that they were all on Fortinbras' side. We made everybody armbands with the Norwegian flag on them, and originally at Osric's signal everyone whipped off their coats to reveal the armbands. But we could never get the moment to work properly and as opening night approached it seemed like too important a moment - Hamlet's death - to throw in such a big clanger. I don't quite remember if we changed it on or after opening night, but what did eventually happen was that we held the 'reveal' until after Fortinbras' entrance. After saying "I have some rights of memory in this kingdom, which now to claim my vantage doth invite me," Fortinbras would march up to the huge Danish crest hanging at the back of the stage and rip it down from the wall, and we eventually decided that this would be the best moment to have the 'reveal'. I recall during the week we opened wondering if we should just drop the whole idea - I was prompted by a few peoples' comments on it on opening night, I think - but the cast were surprised at me not having entire confidence in one of my own ideas, and their surprise was enough for me to think "Damn it, we'll keep it in, I don't care what anyone else thinks!"
Mark was very pleased to be able to play the English Ambassador but there was much debate over his costume. Mark's mother owns a rather spectacular silver and black kimono that Mark has often wanted to wear onstage, and he hoped he'd have the opportunity to in Hamlet. I'd suggested that in II.i, as Polonius is 'relaxing at home' while talking with Reynaldo (the scene is played in the middle of the night in the Branagh film) Mark might wear the kimono then. About a week out from opening night Mark tried wearing the kimono - but in I.iii, the scene between Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. Alex and Tina's eyes widened visibly as Mark marched onstage in his glittering kimono and then delivered Polonius' famous advice to Laertes, and when he got to "Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy - rich, not gaudy, for the apparel oft beclaims the man" those of us in the audience completely lost it. The next night, after being forbidden to wear it as Polonius, he tried it for the English Ambassador. I was already having to stifle my laughter at Fortinbras' Darth Vader-like gas mask, but the sight of Mark at this moment of great tragedy in a shiny kimono - as an ambassador from England - was too much for me. Not just that, but the corpses of Laertes, Hamlet, the King and the Queen were all on the ground convulsing. The first thing Mark said at the first discussion he and I had about Malvolio for Twelfth Night was, "I'm wearing the kimono in the yellow stockings scene!"
Hamlet's body was carried out and as the lights faded to black, our ending music for the show was the demo track of George Harrison singing "All Things Must Pass" that appears on Volume 3 of The Beatles' Anthology. I've always been a huge Beatles fan - if Shakespeare is my theatrical obsession, then The Beatles are my musical one - and George Harrison often popped up in our thoughts during Hamlet - we learnt he'd died the day we did the publicity photos for the show. We had originally thought of something like "Ave Maria" for the end - I wanted something choric or operatic but simple. Someone brought in a recording but I hated it, and it was actually Carey who said "What about a Beatles track?" (most Bacchanals know better than to indulge me when it comes to The Beatles)
After a slow start, Hamlet turned into the most successful season we'd had since The Frogs. Oddly for the show I was happiest with at the time, many of the reviews seemed lukewarm compared with how the previous shows had fared. The promenade gimmick polarised everyone, and whether they loved or hated the show was dictated by the promenade. Interestingly, while none of the reviewers liked the idea, most audience members absolutely loved it and time and time again people claimed that being able to get up and move so regularly meant they stayed attentive and interested. I'm convinced that, had we staged the whole show in one space, it would have just been too long to stop peoples' attention drifting off.
Hamlet continued to have a long life beyond the actual season. We were most surprised to be nominated for two Fringe awards at the end of the festival, especially as no one from the Fringe office had seen the show nor given us any kind of support whatsoever (not that we expected it - after all, like The Frogs our major reliance on the Fringe was the free publicity of having the show advertised in their programme, and the convenience of using their ticketing system rather than having to organize our own). We didn't win either award, nor did we expect to, but with thirteen Bacchanals we consumed a lot of the free booze and felt very pleased with ourselves and what we'd achieved. Right at the other end of the year, we were actually rehearsing Twelfth Night when the phone rang with the news that Erica had been nominated for a Chapman Tripp award for her performance as Horatio. The rest of the rehearsal was a complete write-off as a result, and it was a great victory for us that despite all the other stuff Erica had done that year - including playing the lead in Gravity at Bats, a play up for several awards - the nomination was for Hamlet and not something else. And at the crucial moment of that award ceremony I thought "Of course she'll win!" and seconds later her name came out of the envelope.
I was grumpy at how many of our ideas also appeared in Michael Almerydia's very disappointing film of Hamlet, shot in 2000 but never released in NZ. I finally saw the film on video halfway through 2002 and had to ring Thurleigh Grove (the home of John, James and Mark) during I.v to say "The Ghost has just grabbed Hamlet by the head!" John, who answered the phone, said, "Surely overlapping with someone else just means you've had as good an idea as his?" He wasn't so dismissing when I rang them again during IV.iii to say "The King just punched Hamlet on the same line as you did!" John said, "Hopefully not many people will have seen this film and our production..." Five minutes later I had to ring them back to say "And now they're in an airport!!!" While John roared with laughter, Mark called out, "Is Fortinbras on the telly?" and I looked back at the film to say, "No...no...oh, hang on, he is now..." I have to resign myself to the knowledge that no idea is original, and that theatrical plagiarism is everywhere...
Hamlet was the epitome of the ensemble ideals I'd wanted The Bacchanals to fulfil and it felt like the culmination of all the work we'd done to date. As I've said, it was an utterly happy working experience and the happiest I've been with a show, even though I know I've done much better work before and since. Othello was probably a better show, but Hamlet's virtue was that the whole ensemble was strong, whereas Othello, as much as I'd loved it, rested entirely on star performances from Taika and Carey and they carried the weaker members of the cast. How strange then that Hamlet, the play you'd expect to be carried entirely by the actor Playing The Dane, revolved around a tight group who were all of a high standard. It was a strange time once the show opened, as I knew that it would be a long time before we worked together as a large group again - Crave was in the pipeline and I knew would require only Carey, James, Eve and Tina. And with Carey's departure from NZ scheduled for shortly after Crave's finish date, I knew things would never be the same again and that the next Bacchanals production of a Shakespeare would be a very different kind of show... - David
Front (lr): Hilary, Carey, Adam, Tina, Eve, David
Back: Kate, Kristin, Erica, John, Mark
In the dark: Alex, James
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