December 01, 2006

Shakespeare practical workshop

I have reached a total point of confusion in this Shakespeare module. A lecture on the workings of a theatre as Shakespeare and companions would have known it followed by a practical workshop on how current day RSC actors treat the Bard’s plays; the two being a little different one might say.

With Jonathan Bates’ words on just how many parts each actor had to hold in his head at any one time still ringing loud and clear in my own, the workshop proved even more confounding. After spending two hours on a few soliloquies, I asked myself how the likes of Burbage managed? It is time once again to think back to Baz Luhrman’s aesthetically charged interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and realise that as a 21st Century audience we often just don’t have the same grasp of Shakespeare’s words, and why would we? There is little that is similar between Shakespeare’s lifetime and our own; we have learned that much from his plays.

So humility in tact, the workshop became thoroughly pleasurable and of great benefit. The activities followed the same stages that actors performing Shakespeare today might well go through. Firstly we were invited to explore the text as action and work out what on earth was actually going on and at the same time obtain a good psychological profile of Hamlet himself. A simple childhood game of Grandmother’s Footsteps with Hamlet as Granny told us everything we needed to know about the suspicious state of Hamlet’s mind upon his return to Elsinor. A subsequent exercise involved looking at Hamlet’s various motives that lead to the ultimate outcome of the play. This provided not only the strong sense that Hamlet is a character struggling to make sense of the different directions in which he is being pulled but also a very useful insight into the type of social constraints of the period.

In the second half we moved on to look at some of the text and this is when it gets exciting. Shakespeare is meant to be read aloud and doing so, following the punctuation closely, makes a resounding difference in comprehension of the text, for me in any case. When looking at text the most obvious thing to do is to ask oneself what purpose does it serve? Soliloquies were on the menu and reading the text as a piece of theatre one cannot pass over the fact that such speeches are a dialogue with the audience. Often long self confessions and important revelations that create a very intimate relationship with between the actor and audience. The only slight problem was however the lack of audience, everyone wanted to be Hamlet!

The previous workshop I attended was slightly different in that we dealt with scenes involving character interaction and with fewer egos and plenty of volunteers to play Horatio we were able to engage in another way that a play is transformed from page to stage. Otherwise the exercises were very similar and it would appear Cicely Berry played a large role in influencing both workshop leaders. As a voice coach to a number of politicians as well as actors Berry regrets that not everything said today is still an expression of true inner thoughts and feelings.

But as far as Shakespeare’s words are concerned, once you’ve got one play sorted out, the rest it would appear are much easier to handle as well. The recent complete works season put on by the RSC required cross-casting and several of the actors comment on their own experience in the article below.

Beatrice Orchard

If it’s Tuesday, I must be Hamlet

How does an actor juggle playing two very different roles at once? Patrick Stewart, Simon Russell Beale and Tamsin Greig tell Hilary Whitney how they pull it off When Tamsin Greig finished filming Green Wing last November, it marked the end of an exhausting year – the BBC series Love Soup, an episode of Doctor Who, trips to Birmingham to record her part as Debbie Aldridge in The Archers, and breastfeeding her third child. “I was so relieved when I stopped working,” says Greig. “Then I thought I might like to have a job in the evenings, so I told my agent, very tentatively, that I’d like to do some theatre, something nice and gentle. I never thought she’d start sniffing around the RSC.”
Weeks later she found herself cast not only as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing but also as Constance in the rarely performed King John, both part of the RSC’s current Complete Works season. “I only went to the audition because I wanted to meet Marianne [Elliott, director of Much Ado] and Josie [Rourke, director of King John],” she says ruefully. “I thought if we felt we would like to work with each other then maybe we could do something when I had a bit more time, like when I’m in my eighties. But the RSC are very canny. I mean, who’s going to turn down playing Beatrice for the RSC directed by Marianne Elliott, especially when it’s combined with another dynamite role directed by another good female director?”

In fact, Greig initially did say no, on the grounds that she didn’t want to live away from home for six months. It was her husband, and her agent, who persuaded her to change her mind. “Very early on, I did ask if I could just do one and was tactfully told, ‘Not really. Not unless you’re Maggie Smith.’ But I do think it was a very good decision to do it.”
The practice of cross-casting, whereby an actor is given two or more roles in plays performed in repertory, was introduced to Britain in the early 1900s in an attempt to make a wider range of theatre available to audiences. Originally, the idea was that a different play could be performed each night, but when building the various sets proved too expensive, many theatres switched to presenting different plays in alternate weeks. At one point more than 100 such companies existed, but after the second world war audiences declined and today few organisations function as repertory companies in the true sense of the word, with the notable exception of the Royal National Theatre, the RSC and Dundee Rep.
One of the great benefits of the old repertory system was that it provided an informal apprenticeship. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Harold Pinter and Dirk Bogarde all began their careers in rep. As an actor, it gives you distinct creative advantages. “You have a diversity of experience, shooting from play to play,” says Patrick Stewart, who this year has juggled lead roles as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and Prospero in The Tempest, again for the RSC. “They are massively contrasting plays, but they’re both late plays, so they’re very rich and profound. There are qualities that infiltrate from one play to the next, especially if you do the two plays on the same day.”
Playing two roles does, however, require a huge amount of stamina. “I’m very disciplined about looking after myself because that’s what everyone does in Hollywood. Going to the gym and working with a trainer was the norm and luckily I’ve kept that up. I don’t think I could have approached Antony and Cleopatra without the physical work I was doing as well.
“I deeply resent having to learn lines, though. I sometimes feel that an actor of my age and status shouldn’t have to learn lines any more. It’s like CEOs of companies don’t have to drive their own cars – they have chauffeurs. There should be some system whereby we simply absorb the lines. The good fortune for me was that I’d done these plays before – Antony and Cleopatra twice, and The Tempest five times, so the roles already existed under my skin. They just needed to be accessed and poked into life again.”
Simon Russell Beale believes that cross-casting changed the direction of his career. “I used to do lots of comedy parts, playing Restoration fops and Shakespearean clowns, which people seem to have forgotten now. But while I was at the RSC, Terry Hands cast me as Konstantin in The Seagull in repertory with Edward II. And although he never told me how he came to make that decision, I think it’s probably because the company system encourages directors to find new ways to use actors. Anyway, it changed my life. I would never have expected to play Hamlet because of the physicality of the part, but Konstantin is one of the three big mother-son parts, along with Hamlet and Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and it dawned on me that if I could do one, I could do the others.”
This year, Russell Beale alternated the role of Face in The Alchemist with the title role in Galileo at the National Theatre. “I like having two plays in my head,” he says. “Galileo’s a difficult bastard and it was emotionally tiring, but I loved playing him. But once we started rehearsing The Alchemist, we were performing Galileo in the evenings, so it was a struggle to find the time to learn my lines for The Alchemist. Some lines come to you through rehearsal, but The Alchemist isn’t the sort of play that creeps into your system. Besides, I feel much more secure if I know my lines early on – whatever else happens, I’ll know what to say. There’s always a ceremonial moment when I bin the script.
“There was a period of about two weeks when we were rehearsing the last, really heavy bits of The Alchemist during the day and performing Galileo in the evening when I did think I might have overstretched myself. All I did was get up, act and go to sleep. I felt physically exhausted and, creatively speaking, the cylinders weren’t all firing.But the benefit of rehearsing during the day is that at least you’re warmed up for the evening’s performance. You get your days back once rehearsals are over.”
Greig dismisses the idea that memorising Shakespeare is more difficult than learning a TV script. “We had 16 weeks to rehearse Much Ado and the more you rehearse, the less you have to remember the lines – they kind of osmosify into your body. It’s very peculiar, they become almost physical.” But she does admit she felt out of her depth when Much Ado first opened. “It was so long since I’d done any theatre, and our production is very dependent on the audience’s response. There’s no way you can prepare for that. I could have done with a bit of time for reflection, but by then we were into rehearsals for the next show [King John], which is a serious history piece about the tragedy of power.
“But you know what? It’s not coal mining. And although Beatrice and Constance are very different, they do actually feed off each other. There was one scene in Much Ado where Marianne was trying to push me to lose my temper and I couldn’t do it in rehearsal. It just looked a bit sham, and that carried on into the first few performances. Then we went into rehearsals for King John, and I was exploring Constance’s rage when the assistant director suggested I take a piece of Constance into the scene I was struggling with in Much Ado. It was amazing. It completely unlocked the scene for me when I realised there’s a sliver where Beatrice and Constance overlap.”
“People often ask if we mix up lines from plays,” says Russell Beale, “but it’s almost impossible because you’re anchored to the story, although once I very nearly said, “How now!” to Signora Sarti in Galileo, which is a bit Jacobean.”
“By the time you’ve opened, your character is so embedded that it would be very hard to muddle up your lines,” agrees Tim McMullan, who this year played Signor Priuli in The Life of Galileo and Pertinax Surly in The Alchemist. “Simon’s moustache fell off the other night, which was very funny. Sometimes you think you’re missing a prop when you’re not. You’ll walk across the stage and think, “Oh, shit, I’m not wearing my hat,” and then you realise you don’t wear a hat in that show. Mind you, once I left Caroline Quentin all alone on stage because I had to dash off to the props room for a vital prop I’d forgotten. She sort of saw the funny side.”
“There was one thing I did very early on in the preview week of King John,” recalls Greig. “Much Ado is set in 1950s Cuba and Beatrice is very sassy, with a beautiful 1950s figure, so she’s got an arse and fabulous pointed breasts which are nothing to do with me – it’s all padding. A lot of my stance is hands-on-hip and pelvis-driven. There was one moment during the previews where, as Constance, I turned on somebody and started to move one of my hands towards my hip and suddenly thought, ‘Whoa! Put that down!’ Constance would never use that kind of body language and anyway, I didn’t have any hips to put my hands on because I was in Constance’s costume.”
A few weeks ago, McMullan was asked to join the cast of Coram Boy; he is back to working 13-hour days, which means he gets to see little of his young family. “But it’s not forever,” he says, “and I feel fortunate to have been in such good plays with a company of this quality. I think if you were in two disastrous plays, it’d be soul-destroying. It doesn’t take many unfilled seats for the Olivier auditorium to look empty.” He also knows that regular audiences appreciate the balancing act. “I know many of them enjoy seeing the same actors turn up in different roles. I think they’re interested to see what we’ll pull out of the hat next”.
Wednesday November 22, 2006
The Guardian

November 26, 2006

Comparison of two film versions of Hamlet

Following on from the work already on this blog, I would like to look at the rampart scene in two film versions of Hamlet, the BBC’s 1980 version starring Derek Jacobi, and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 depiction with Ethan Hawke.

These two films approached the text from very different directions. The BBC production, as part of a Shakespeare season not dissimilar to the current RSC one, was very clearly about ‘traditional’ Shakespeare, about Shakespeare as a cultural artefact and national icon whose plays are part of an English/British cultural tradition. The version cut very little from the from the original text and although not a stage-to-screen version, it was nevertheless quite stagey, low on special effects and filled with classical stage actors. In contrast, Almereyda’s version updates the action to modern day New York, and whereas the BBC’s version aims at authenticity, Almereyda’s watchword is relevance.

The BBC version of the ramparts scene opens on a desolate, foggy night lit only by a bonfire; the Almereyda version features an upmarket penthouse lit by bright lights and a violent explosion from a disaster movie on the TV. Almereyda’s version also incorporates a startling number of technological devices, one of which is used in the ramparts – or in this case the penthouse balcony – scene. Instead of Horatio and Marcellus being with Hamlet when the ghost is seen, they are watching on a CCTV camera and ring his room to tell him. We therefore never hear or see Hamlet’s protestations that he wants to talk to the ghost, making his eventual conversation with it feel more imposed than welcomed. The Jacobi Hamlet actively wants to meet and talk with the ghost, physically pushing away Horatio and Marcellus, who would have him remain. Hawke’s Hamlet is less active, shrinking back into his chair and backing towards the door, away from the encroaching Ghost.

It is significant, too, that the lines that are cut in this scene are mostly from Hamlet, not from the Ghost. This decision turns Hamlet into a reluctant, passive being, one spoken to and ordered about by the Ghost. In contrast, whilst the BBC version has an authoritative Ghost in battle armour who orders Hamlet to avenge him, Hamlet himself passionately acquiesces in his demands, striking his breast, sinking to his knees and swearing an oath. And when the Ghost begins to recede into the mist, Jacobi’s Hamlet tries to follow him, whereas Hawke shrinks away when the Ghost embraces him.
The Ghost in the BBC version also has his otherworldly nature emphasised by the shroud of mist around him and the fact that there is no physical contact between them. Hawke’s Hamlet is physically seized by the Ghost, which is threatening but also seems to humanise the Ghost and make his threats and orders less mysterious and perhaps easier to disregard. And Hamlet does seem to disregard the Ghost’s orders in this scene – crucially, lines 1.5.30 are cut, those where Hamlet pledges to avenge his father.
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
These lines instead seem to hang over the scene, right up until when a desperate Ghost embraces Hamlet and begs him to ‘Remember me’. Indeed, Hamlet’s only reaction to this meeting is ‘The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!’; isolated from its original context, it here suggests an unwillingness on Hamlet’s part to accept the burden his father has placed upon him. The final embrace that Hawke receives from the Ghost seems to make the Ghost the supplicant; in the BBC version it is Hamlet who falls to his knees in supplication, desperate to prove his obedience to the armour-clad Ghost.

To consider Julia’s point about how decisions taken in this scene invariably affect decisions taken at later points, it is fruitful to consider the later Ghost scene. In the BBC version Hamlet again sinks to his knees in front of the Ghost and appears willing to listen to him and obey his authority. In the Almereyda version, the Oedipal aspects of the play are highlighted, as the ghost intrudes upon Hamlet and his mother in an intimate position and Hamlet seems to shrink, as if accused, from his gaze.
The lines
Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.
are delivered by Jacobi in sorrow; in the Almeyeder they are cut to ‘Do not look upon me’, which Hawke screams angrily at the Ghost.

For Jacobi’s Hamlet, the Ghost seems to represent a missing figure of authority whom he tries, but fails, to replace and whom he sometimes seems to want to re-install/resurrect; for Hawke’s Hamlet, he seems yet another confusing figure who demands obedience in a world bereft of moral boundaries.

November 24, 2006

hamlet of the shchigrovsky district – turgenev short story

(this is all of turgenev’s huntsman’s sketches, scroll down for the specific story)

Adapting Shakespeare: Response to Germaine Greer Guardian article

Reading the article below, written by Germaine Greer in the Guardian, brings up issues of interpretation in adapting Shakespeare’s plays, written some 400 years ago, for the stage and screen of today. It is a problem we have discussed in seminars – how can you present the play and stay faithful to Shakespeare, and what does it meant to be faithful: faithful simply to the text, the plot or the spirit in which the play was written?

Obviously, we cannot know how Shakespeare wanted his audience to react to Hamlet: whether an ineffectual wool-gatherer, a reluctant hero forced to act his part in a revenge plot unwillingly, at the hands of forces of history or of God. As continuous reworkings of Shakespeare show, every age produces its own Hamlet, tries to reinvigorate it. Hence, we can see the path between Olivier’s angsty, shadow-ridden hero to the modern day, New York set ‘Denmark Corporation’ of Hawke’s high-tech interpretation, of course via Branagh’s return to the full text. This need to modernise the content and form to fit the current day is understandable, and often adaptations do this in a way which we must acknowledge faithful, for example in West Side Story or Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The argument here is an old one, it is the idea that Shakespeare’s writing is universal and timeless, that its basic truths about human nature transcend boundaries of time, gender, political climate etc. However, it is hard to completely accept this view, not least because, obviously, Shakespeare’s stories aren’t original. It is not particularly the plots which are important, (although obviously the way Shakespeare manipulates his sources is critical) but the language, and this is where we reach what is often the crux of arguments about adapting Shakespeare.

The text itself is, after all, all we can really rely on, and so it is often Shakespeare’s words which mark whether a production is faithful or not, and not the actor’s own interpretation: eg Hamlet as Oedipal, gay. This is what Germaine Greer writes about in her article: she believes that an actor’s individual take on Shakespeare’s meaning, the ‘direction’ they want to take the character in and the quirks of speech and mannerisms which arise from this, must inevitably get in the way of the power of the words. Thus she uses the example of an amateur letting Hamlet’s words do the talking, a 16 year old schoolboy without a ‘gimmick’ who, Greer claims, creates the definitive performance of the play. This makes sense: Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most ‘wordy’ characters, and his speeches are externalisations of the mind’s workings, and hence should not need some other, outward motivation. Shakespeare’s delight in language throughout his career, but also, in this play, his exploration of its powers and limitations, should prove that the text itself must be allowed to create the effect he wanted.

In this sense I agree with Greer’s argument, but on the other hand it is important to remember that these plays are 400 years and that, inevitably, some of the jokes and ideas can not be as relevant now as they were when written. Similarly, these plays are so treasured and repeated that famous speeches can sound tired, and this is why new productions feel the need to have a new ‘take’ on the play, in order that the words can be heard again, as if new. I am afraid I’m sitting on the fence here. I think that to be faithful to Shakespeare, the bulk of the text must be used, and should be used fairly truthfully – without the obvious acting, mugging, and groaning which Greer complains of. However, as well as this, the play must make some attempt to acknowledge its place in time by interpreting it from a certain angle, while keeping the spirit of the play in tact. It is by balancing these two areas – text and interpretation – that fresh adaptations of plays such as Hamlet can be created while maintaining the power of the world evoked by the play’s language.

Jenny Holden

Today’s actors are Shakespeare’s worst enemies

Forget RSC veterans – the best Hamlet I ever saw was a gangling 16-year-old boy in a school play, says Germaine Greer

Monday November 20, 2006
The Guardian
It is generally agreed that young people should see Shakespeare on the stage, and that until they do they can have no true appreciation of the Bard’s achievement. What is usually meant by this is that they should see a modern production of a Shakespearean play, or part of one – usually the first thing a 21st-century director does is cut the text, as much as he or she wishes. Very few people now go to see Shakespeare with a copy of the play in hand, or in head, so nobody much notices.

Critics seldom address themselves to this truncation of the original, even though it usually imposes a false coherence on the play. Director X cuts Hamlet so that we conclude that Hamlet was (obviously) mad; director Y decides that he was gay; and director Z that he was in love with his mother. None are necessarily right – or wrong. In the real world, people behave inconsistently and contradict themselves, as they do in Shakespeare – but actors don’t live in the real world. Theirs is not life but art, and in art you have to know what you mean when you say things. Actors can’t do motiveless, but motivelessness is sometimes the point. Iago’s behaviour, like all evil in the Aristotelian world view, is irrational, absurd. It can have no inner logic, unless the director or actor decides that Iago really does think that Othello has enjoyed his wife, and that Iago gives a damn, which is to greatly impoverish the play.
When Shakespeare wrote, the novel could hardly have been said to exist, and the idea of a character developing through the narrative did not exist either. Character was not an assemblage of traits that had developed out of life experiences, but a mask – a doer, a mover and a speaker that could change with a change of costume, as Prince Hal does when he becomes Henry V. Shape-changing was the name of the game.
The contradictions were wonderful. A sixpenny player parading in brocade and stuffed with Shakespeare’s language could out-monarch the monarch. Elizabeth I knew this, so she dressed the part of queen with blinding extravagance and uttered speeches so bewildering and masterful that Shakespeare might have written them for her. Her audience applauded, and remained an audience.
A schoolchild who is bused to Stratford could be pardoned for thinking that a performance by the expert actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company would have to be as good as it could get, which would be a huge pity. The verse should supply the heartbeat and the breathing, but because English is the first language of only a part of the audience, no one – not the director, not an actor – dares rely on the words. Instead they act, and mug, inserting snorts or groans, anything to blur the line’s delivery. In a production of Romeo and Juliet I once saw in Stratford, the actors threw an orange back and forth during the balcony scene. The heads of the audience wagged back and forth, as if at Wimbledon.
It is obviously true that Shakespeare’s theatre must be got off the page if it is to be experienced, but it doesn’t have to be incarnated in the highly self-conscious, mannered, even narcissistic performances of today’s leading actors. I can still remember going as a 16-year-old to a performance of Hamlet at a nearby school. Hamlet was a tall, fair boy of excruciating thinness. He had no technique, but he had Hamlet’s words. He seemed hypnotised by the charisma of the poetry. He listened to himself, as actors rarely do. What came through him, like sunlight through a pane of glass, was the strenuousness of Hamlet’s struggle with disgust and disbelief. We could have giggled at his knobby knees in the dreaded tights, as he stalked crane-like about the stage – but we didn’t.
At home, I realised that I could be in that entranced state again whenever I opened the book and began to read the words aloud. After school, my mates and I took all the parts, weighting them different ways, trying different speeds, noticing who spoke little and meant much, and who babbled and bleated. In later years we would see great actors play Hamlet. We saw Hamlets who stripped and flagellated themselves, Hamlets who groped Horatio, Hamlets who had epileptic fits. Not one of them was a patch on a gangling Australian boy who did nothing but say the words as simply and as thoughtfully as he could.

November 22, 2006

Practical Work

The start of this term witnessed a very visible wave of fear rippling through the Shakespeare students, as they were informed that they would be required to actively participate in (God forbid) a practical theatre workshop. The threat that had previously been dismissed as myth or filed away at the back of the brain with all those other repressed undesirables (like essay deadlines) was unavoidably real, and fast approaching. Having seen and heard this anxiety in so many others, I want to make what seems to be an unprecedented suggestion: that drama may not in fact be a source of extreme terror for all academics. Dare I admit that the opportunity to get out of the central campus bubble, into a rehearsal space, on my feet, moving and speaking, and playing with Shakespeare may have been something to get excited about? Perhaps I simply lack the proper sense of embarrassment that any decent individual ought to have, but there it is: I was rather looking forward…

And so to Hamlet. Not just any play. Not just any Shakespeare play. But the play. The bastion of English literature. Colossal in size, density and impact, and known to all of us, in one form or another, long before we’re capable of actually reading it for ourselves. You see a man holding a skull, as if in conversation with it, and you don’t need anyone to tell you it’s Hamlet. We all think we know something about this play (and hopefully, as literature students, some of us actually do). It was no coincidence, that when asked to “do Hamlet”, every one of us immediately became a broody and reflective introvert. In some sense, it is because we all think we know Shakespeare, because so many of the plays are so familiar, so integral to our understanding of “English Literature”, that we must, as it were, forget what we think we know and deal with what’s actually there. Through textual and physical games, this is precisely what workshops are designed to do: open up the options in a text that our intellectualist, argumentative and academically oriented brains might not have seen on paper.

I could sing the praises of “the practical approach” at obnoxious length – and probably have done and will do again, elsewhere. However, a large number of words on this page have already gone to serving that purpose, as well as articulating the benefits of this particular workshop (and rightly so). Having laid my credentials on the virtual table as being strongly in favour of getting up and engaging on one’s feet, I hope it will not be taken as unnecessarily negative to voice some criticisms. One of the major arguments for literature students doing drama workshops is to give non-actors an insight into “the actor’s process”. James took us through many of these and they are listed and explained in great detail (complete with pictures) on this page. Entertaining and interesting in themselves, as examples of how “the actor’s process” might begin, I nevertheless confess that I was left somewhat frustrated by them: having just begun to explore possibilities, there wasn’t time to follow through on any of them.

I appreciate that the nature of circumstances and unavoidable time constraints makes this a somewhat redundant, if not highly unhelpful point to make but it would have been interesting, having opened up possibilities, to consider what the choice of any particular option would mean for the rest of a speech, scene and production. No speech works in isolation – by which I mean that they are written and almost always performed as part of a much larger construction, and that construction informs how it can and/or should be performed; the inverse is also true, that the way any one speech is performed will affect the rest of the production. To take only one example, if you decide to internalise the Ghost and have his voice rise up through the actor playing Hamlet, it must then affect the decisions you can then make when it comes, for instance, to Hamlet’s scenes with Gertrude. The decision you make at any one juncture will dictate the decisions you can make later on. Had there been time, I would have included some discussion time to consider the implications of the different options we had uncovered through the practical work. Any speech can be performed any number of different ways but they are not all “right”, when you put it back in the context of the whole play. Questions almost inevitably beget more questions and perhaps it is the academic side of my brain that wants to construct arguments, but I was left wanting to grapple with those questions to think about what some of our answers might have meant for a whole production.

November 21, 2006

Shakespeare Workshop

Shakespeare Workshop

Overall this workshop proved a highly useful opportunity to engage with the Shakespearian text on a more practical level, which we would not normally get the opportunity to do as literature students. For those of us without a theatrical background, it provided the novelty of a theatrical experience and helped us to place the early scenes of ‘Hamlet’ into the context of a dramatic text, rather than a literary one. After all, Shakespeare’s plays were written to be acted and not simply read. It gave us the chance to delve into the character of the Ghost in ‘Hamlet’ and specifically the relationship between Hamlet and his dead father, through a series of exercises, which encouraged us to make choices about the practical presentation of these of these two characters in their scenes together.

After the initial warm-up exercises, which helped to relieve our natural anxieties about the unfamiliar prospect of ‘performing’ and ‘acting’ scenes from Shakespeare, James Stredder dedicated the rest of the workshop to drama exercises designed to bring us closer to a practical understanding of the opening scenes of ‘Hamlet’, especially the first meeting between the grieving Hamlet and the ghost of his murdered father.

One section of the workshop which I found particularly helpful was an exercise in small groups, based on speeches by Horatio and Marcellus in the opening scene, in which we were asked to interpret the speech by assigning different lines to each member of the group. This exercise encouraged us to think creatively about the different ways in which these speeches could be interpreted on stage and what thought processes an actor might go through when reviewing a speech (e.g. tempo, timing, emphasis, body language, interaction with others onstage etc), allowing us to bounce ideas off one another in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the play as dramatic text.

At the risk of repeating what Tim and Francine have already said, I also thought the clarification exercise was particularly effective, with the person playing Hamlet questioning Horatio about the details of the ghost’s earlier visitation. This helped to focus our minds on what was actually being said by Horatio in the speech and how this could be delivered by an actor, but was also entirely in keeping with the spirit of the scene, as it precedes Hamlet’s interrogation of Horatio in the text.

In addition, the pair work on the exchange between Hamlet and Horatio was a helpful exercise, which gave us lots of scope for interpretation, forcing us, as it did, to consider alternative deliveries of the scene depending upon Hamlet’s relationship with his father. How might this scene be different if Hamlet is anxious/frightened/angry/eager at the prospect of a possible meeting with the ghost of his dead father?

Finally, I would like to say that I felt the workshop was by and large a considerable success, particularly for students like myself with no background in the theatre, but I also agree with Tim that the time constraints of the two-hour session prevented us from fully analysing and interpreting the scenes and that a longer session might have enabled more literary analysis alongside the drama exercises.

Adam Micklethwaite

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