Directing Hamlet: Choices

by Kurt Spenrath on November 1, 2011

The only thing scarier than playing Hamlet is directing it.

With that, what better time to enter the world of blogging than with Hamlet? Over the next few weeks I will be adding thoughts on the directing and acting of the show, mostly directed at the new students of classical theatre, and a few stories from my years on the road. It will be a chance for you to sample some of thoughts that go into shaping a Shakespeare production.

One of the first things to grapple with is the tone of the production and the artistic choices around what you want the Hamlet experience to be. Obviously, Shakespeare is one of, if not the greatest writers of the English language, so we want to be loyal to his work. BUT, we also want audiences to have a kick ass good time. BUT we want it to be accessible to secondary students. BUT we want people all over the world to check out a unique vision of this work, and for it to be sincerely f*#king cool.

A few years ago in Toronto, our good friends at Necessary Angel did a massively deconstructed production of Hamlet that pushed the envelope, including Hamlet in his underwear asphyxiating himself in a plastic bag, simulated sex with his mother… the whole nine yards. Cool show, and I dug it, but it is not where I want to go with this. A few years before that, Kenneth Branagh produced his completely uncut film version of Hamlet that was 100% loyal to the folio text. Again, gorgeous film, an academic achievement that I hugely respect… but not where I want to go with this.

Hamlet is violent. Hamlet is a poet. Hamlet is sexy. Hamlet is a philosopher.

To this end, the first step was the team abridging the text, which is polite way of saying we cut the bastard down from over 32,000 words to just under 19,000 words so that it would move. Hamlet doesn’t meet Horatio in this version, they are already best friends. Polonius always enters speaking. And things just keep picking up speed as our world unravels. I want a two hour Hamlet.

Now, I don’t want to spoil any of the design ideas, or cool staging ideas, or new ways of seeing the show. You have to buy a ticket for that. But, hopefully the marketing will give a sense of the Steampunk meets 1984 meets Terry Gilliam meets V for Vendetta world that we are going for. (I don’t want to spend this blog recapping that, as design and staging are more than several whole blogs.)

So, from the actor’s perspective: The text will always have choices about how to play a character, and they will often be equally valid. I’ll start with the example of Gertrude, as we just had an informal read of the scene between her and Hamlet the other day. This is, in my opinion, one of the hardest scenes in Shakespeare. Before you can start rehearsing it, you have to ask fundamental questions about Gertrude: is she complicit in the actions of Claudius? Is there a moment before the play starts where she has a Lady M moment with Claudius and convinces him to kill the King? Do the lights come up on her with a mortar and pestle grinding poison? …OR was there some version of a Richard III moment where the widow was seduced over her husband’s casket a la “was ever a woman in this way wooed? Was ever a woman in this way won?” Is she an innocent dupe that over the course of the play sees the error of her ways, or a fully active participant in the proceedings. Or is there a totally different third possibility?

These are very different choices about how to play Gertrude, and from an academic standpoint, they are both valid and can both lead to amazing performances. As a director, one has an opinion about these things… but the magic of theatre usually comes from the unique talents that actors bring with them.

The task of a director is two fold: first they must maintain the unity and sense of a production, keeping performances and design elements in harmony and logical, “tending the light” so that everyone feels they are working with a safety net, and that the work will be good by the time it sees an audience. Second, a director has to find what makes an artist compelling, and create a space in which those strengths can flourish.

Often a key choice will come down to the best synthesis of task and talent in a given role. Fortunately, in our case, Suzanne (the actress playing Gertrude) is a creature of immense ability. This does make directing much simpler. Often the best choice for a director to make is to choose to let an artistic team be the absolute best that they can be, and to shape those amazing ideas and energies into a cohesive whole.

That being said, I do still have a few cool ideas up my sleeve. Stay tuned for more thoughts.


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