April 22, 2009

The Lost Interpretations of Hamlet @ The CAPITAL Centre

Writing about web page go.warwick.ac.uk/capital/teaching_and_learning/projects/thehamletproject

It's a shame that my PhD doesn't (at the moment, anyway) include any performative elements; I can imagine it being uniquely exciting to have your thesis shaped by theatrical experimentation and events. Last night saw PhD researcher and CAPITAL artist-in-residence Tom Cornford's first public presentation of the Hamlet Project's rehearsal experiments, which I'd just like to make a few notes on.

The production was based on four early European Hamlet projects:  Stanislavsky/Gordon Craig’s 1912 production and Michael Chekhov’s 1924 Moscow Art Theatre Studio production, and Meyerhold and Tarkovsky’s planned versions, neither of which was produced. The hour long performance incorporated elements planned by all four productions, combining them into a single, coherent aesthetic.

Only key scenes were included, mapping the play rather than telling the entire story (Ghost and Hamlet, To be or not to be, Nunnery, Advice to players, Mousetrap, Closet, Ophelia's death, Yorick and funeral). Cast were seperated from audience by a translucent white screen, containing the action safely away - except when Hamlet forced his way under the screen to directly speak to the audience, as in soliloquy. Back projections, meanwhile, displayed images (the King and Queen in masks, for example) or tracking shots that lent depth to the stage action, most notably as a camera lingered over Ophelia's corpse in a woodland, or as the bodies of the final scene were shown in stillness, the discarded swords and goblets being individually picked out.

Key to the presentation were twinning and doubling. Two Hamlets, one male and one female, interacted throughout, whether bouncing thoughts off one another in soliloquy (rendering "To be..." particularly fascinating, as the two acted out the progression of thoughts) or joining to create a cumulative effect of speed and energy (such as the lightning fast instructions to the players, with Hamlet seemingly talking to everyone at once). "To be" additionally engaged the audience as the female Hamlet moved to a position behind and to the side of the audience seating, directly addressing the male Hamlet who stood directly in front of the screen. The Hamlets also interacted in the personas of other characters; for example, the male Hamlet doubled as the Ghost, suggesting that the Ghost is simply an aspect of Hamlet, prompting all kinds of Freudian explosions.

Doubling was used importantly elsewhere. The Freudian aspects of the play were again highlighted in The Mousetrap, which saw the female Hamlet doubling as Lucianus while Claudius played Gonzago and Gertrude his queen. This idea deserves further attention; the multiple significances of Hamlet taking on his uncle's role in the dumbshow, while the uncle becomes the father, were hugely arresting and complex, the Oedipus parallels being made visual and physical (though stopping short of showing Hamlet-Lucianus and Gertrude together - the fantasy aborted by Claudius' call for "Light!"). Among the minor characters, similar links were made. Polonius and Ophelia, both having recently died, reappeared as the Gravediggers, while Horatio became Laertes, complicating his relationship with the Hamlets.

The acting was heavily stylised in places, and I regret missing the discussion afterwards as this is the aspect I know least about in relation to the performances being quoted. However, the adoption of stylised techniques for "The Mousetrap" worked especially well in the case of Claudius and Gertrude as they became the players - the restricted movements and stock gestures employed in their acting-out of their crimes lent a sense of entrapment and crudity to what they had done, their decisions chaining them. Lucianus, meanwhile, dressed in black while speaking the prologue and performing in the dumb-show, moved through a series of pre-defined gestures that separated her eerily from the others on stage; in this player, the female Hamlet was reincarnated, and she maintained an otherness, a detachment from the rest of the characters, that showed her deliberate intent in performing and introducing the play. It was moments like this that strengthened the connection between the two Hamlets, creating a partnership that bound the plot directly in with the workings of their mind.

The sudden appearance of the Ghost provided one of the production's most enduing images, leaping suddenly up onto a raised platform and holding out an arm towards Hamlet, face obscured by a black cloak that rendered his body shapeless, blending in with the darkness of the stage. In response, the guards moved through the motions of loading and firing longbows, almost in slow motion, turning the instinctive reflexes into a choreographed and predestined ballet with the ghost; their actions were impotent, ineffectual. Hamlet's anxiety and emotion on seeing his father were conveyed through a further, bizarre set of movements as he fought to get to him, culminating in the female actor leaping to a kneeling position on Horatio's shoulders, an unnatural position which demonstrated the extremes of his emotional response.

The nunnery scene raced past in a heartrending encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius could be glimpsed standing behind a second translucent screen. Ophelia took a static position at one side of the stage, weeping and pleading with Hamlet, while he paced back and forth across the width of the stage. His restricted movement was at odds with his seemingly limitless energy, his frustration and anger being channelled into his attack on Ophelia, culminating in his brutally shoving her to the floor. This sense of a captive energy finally found a release at the end of Ophelia's madness, when she ran off-stage. Another actor took over seamlessly behind the second screen, shuttle-running across the stage, until finally emerging as the furious Laertes. This transition not only served to link the change in focus between the siblings, but also allowed the wild energy to finally be released; culminating, of course, in Ophelia's offstage death, announced shortly after (here, the siblings never met). At its heart, the production was concerned with repression and constraint, chronicling the effects of release after entrapment that destroy all they come into contact with.

A relatively kindly Polonius was the victim in the closet scene, but not a victim we were encouraged to identify with; he was simply collateral damage. More powerful was Hamlet's confrontation with his mother, during which both Claudius and Old Hamlet were brought physically back on stage, standing either side of Gertrude and forcing her to confront her choices. Polonius reappeared in the Graveyard, standing behind a raised platform on which Hamlet stood, looking down into the grave. This platform provided a focal point for the final scene, including the locked grapple into which Hamlet and Laertes entered.

Finally - it was only an hour long! I have to say, I do enjoy a Hamlet of this length much more. An extremely interesting performance, with some cracking student actors. I only hope Tom can find a way to write it all up!


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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