“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 6

By Grace Andrews

Greetings from South Bend! It’s the day before we open here at Washington Hall. The Indiana skies greeted us with low-lying cloud, a bruised purple haze and rumbling storms. The perfect backdrop for our tragedy.

Settling in at Notre Dame however, has been much more welcoming, and we feel instantly at home in this warm and dynamic environment. The American energy is empowering, and something about the space and air here fuels us with a renewed drive. Our horizons have been opened, and so have our minds – and our play begins to take on a new depth in our new context.

With that freedom, come questions. We think we understand this play, the rise and fall within it, the undercurrents, the moments of oblivion. The challenge now is being open to the potential to re-learn, re-examine, and rejuvenate. Choices we made and loved back in London are tested, tried and sometimes thrown out. We grit our teeth, we smile, and sometimes we cry. The play and process demands a greater muscularity than ever, and we rise to meet it. As if under a microscope, we examine our roles and attempt to give them more life than before. I’m drawn back to an exercise I learnt whilst training, ‘I present. I share.’ The difference in these two small sentences is monumental. It is easy to present a clever idea. It requires much more courage to share your heart, but it has the power to unite us in what it means to be human.

Everyone works differently, but I am struck by the intensity of these final hours before we truly begin. I have been stuck on the Ophelia ‘madness’ scenes, and feeling decidedly wretched and defeatist about it, desperately trying to see some light. Part of the block comes from the songs, which are so exposing I want to run. I search, unrelatedly for a song on my Apple Music to make me feel better (get a grip, Grace!) and suddenly – there it is. An Anthony & The Johnsons song in which the lyrics are so brutally clear they make me see her for the first time in weeks. I think Ophelia wants Gertrude to be her friend. Her ally. She has the courage to cry for help, and ask the questions no one will face.

Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me

When I die, will I go?

Hope there’s someone who’ll set my heart free

Nice to hold when I’m tired

There’s a ghost on the ‘rizon

When I go to bed

How can I fall asleep at night

How will I rest my head?

Oh I’m scared of the middle place

Between light and nowhere

I don’t want to be the one

Left in there, left in there

“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 5

by Grace Andrews

The aftermath of our showing last week has brought one word to all of our attention – simplicity. We have pushed far in creative exploration of this story – and now it is our job to tell the story with the most truth and clarity possible, and bring it to America with pride!

Often, the solution to this is to simply do less. As an actor, it is hugely tempting to be interesting. In doing so, occasionally we move further away from the truth of simply being able to stand and speak, and let the text soar uncluttered.

From L to R: Ben Eagle, Grace Andrews, Wendy Morgan.

At the airport, I touched base with Wendy Morgan (Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Horatio and Lucianus) and Ben Eagle (Claudius, Francisco, Gravedigger) to ask them where their heads were at as we embarked on the next stage of our adventure.

Wendy Morgan

G – How do you feel about Gertrude?
W – I’m still in a process which won’t end, so I don’t feel I’ve arrived at anything I’m totally happy with yet, but I feel like I have a good base to kick off from. Although actually, last night, I completely questioned what I was doing, and thought hmm, but then I thought, no – maybe I am on the right path.

G – What have you found your main challenge to be so far?
W – I’d say – waiting. Normally if a situation is uncomfortable I might want to resolve it, but I’m trying to wait and allow it to be uncomfortable, and not rush into save everything, just allow, and trust everyone is alright, I suppose.

G – And what has been your main joy?
W – Being with everyone and working on this play, in the way we’re doing it, and taking it on tour to America, and being able to talk to students about this process.

G – What do you prioritise when working on Shakespeare?
W – The structure of the verse and the prose – The Form.

G – How do you feel about your role within this company?
W – Every single Shakespeare part I would love to play. I feel like there’s literally no small part in Shakespeare, as it’s all part of this big piece of music. So yeah, I’m so grateful to be playing Gertrude, who’s quite difficult in the underwritten way she is, but I’m also playing Horatio, amongst others, so that really is quite a rounded experience.

G – Anything to add?
W – I’m honoured to be a part of this project, for many reasons, particularly because my teacher was Peter Hall, and he gave me all that I know, and I’m honoured to be able to share that.

Ben Eagle

G – How do you feel about Claudius?
B – Ooh, he’s a good-looking chap, ha. He’s the villain of the piece, but equally to knowingly play a villain is not a helpful way to approach a character. I’d like to find the truth in him, and why he does what he does.

G – What have you found your main challenge to be so far?
B – Working with such talented actors, and trying to match their phenomenal talent, of course.

G – And what has been your main joy?
B – My biggest joy, is after five weeks of turbulence, and pleasure and creativity, we have a version of Hamlet which is now clear and succinct, and I hope a pleasure to perform and a joy to watch.

G – How do you feel about taking this play to the USA?
B – Well America is a very interesting place, and I think Hamlet throws up so many different themes and arguments, that each individual audience, no matter where you’re from, will draw something different from it. But it’s not up to me to make that decision. I’ll try and say the words like I mean them, that’s all.

G – What do you prioritise when you speak Shakespeare?
B – On this project, I have been encouraged to use the verse more, which can be extremely useful. It’s not something I immediately go to. I try to find the sense in the line, which is interesting as I think the sense definitely comes from the verse. That’s been a learning curve for me. I want to make the words mine, despite the fact that they are sometimes archaic and it’s poetry – a heightened language, my aim would be to make it as naturalistic as possible.

G – Anything to add?
B – It’s been a joy so far, and I can’t wait to perform to the American students and faculties. When do we get paid?

“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 4

by Grace Andrews

Week 4, and we propel into a new pace. We face the London Associates showing on Friday, and as this deadline looms we grasp the opportunity to tell this story with a feverish energy. The pressure of welcoming people into our space and embracing fresh eyes is daunting, as we have found a dynamic I feel protective of. We are direct, we challenge and provoke each other daily, all with nurture, support and championing our individuality at the forefront. Our occasional dysfunction often results in the most interesting discoveries. We push on.

Ophelia constantly throws up fresh challenges for me, and with the help of my fellow actors I continue to find new and surprising colours in her text. On first reading the part, I felt a confidence and affinity with her character, the words she chooses and her rhythm of speech. The clarity of her thoughts sung out, and I knew I could attempt to tell her story with truth – and enable her journey to support and fuel this play. I knew I could learn to tell her story with raw and fierce positivity.

From L to R: Ben Eagle, Madeleine Hyland, fight director Philip d’Orléans, Peter Bray, Wendy Morgan, Grace Andrews.

But as the weeks have gone on, I feel I have lost some of that clarity to self-doubt, and I now feel a little at sea. Am I being too generalised? Painting her with too broad a brush? Will it ever be enough? Part of the magic of this process is the freedom of no director, but that is also a huge challenge as we lack an outside eye who can validate or critique our choices, and who rationally and objectively can keep a sense of the arc of the play. We are required to work alone, think big, and stand by our decisions – and at times it is hard to sustain the confidence to do so.

However, the brilliance of this company is that, more than ever, you are held up by the words. Shakespeare offers us everything we need, and the more trust that, and the more we mine this text the more beauty, pain and life we discover. Lines of verse you feel you have known your whole life suddenly jump out to arrest you with a searing honesty.

A particular challenge within my part is the doubling of playing both Ophelia and Laertes. As siblings, their relationship shares a tenderness and trust unlike any other in the play, and their direct and protective filial love is played out mainly through absence of each other in momentous life events; their father’s death, Ophelia’s heartbreak and loss of innocence, and Laertes’ violent revenge.

The rehearsal room.

On a rushed and frantic lunch break in Brixton, I came across some sheer and colour-less organza material, which looked and moved mysteriously like water. Something about it drew me in, and I bought a few meters, slightly amused at myself and thinking, ‘How on earth is this going to help?’ Back in the rehearsal room, as I was desperately folding it in different configurations in an attempt to resemble some kind of dress, we discovered a face forming. If you gathered the fabric in your fist, doubled it over and with a little twist and allowed her body to drape down to the floor, suddenly Laertes seemed holding Ophelia as a puppet. It is remarkable how quickly something comes alive if you endow it with breath and care. In small touches, mischievous exchanged looks, and a shared sense of play, I began to find their connection. The quality of the fabric offered me a softness and grace to match, both vocally and physically. It was moving to find her being passed between her brother and her father, who in a way see her less as a person with an identity, but as a shape they can master.

Whether we use it or not in the final production, by discovering this puppet, I feel like I have come closer to finding Ophelia’s spirit.

“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 3

By Grace Andrews

Week three has broken us into a new way of working, a fresh dynamic from which we are making bold new discoveries and mining deeper into this heady and huge expanse of text. The initial feeling of distance, the fear of not being able to reach the height of the words, or breadth of the ideas, begins to fade – and slowly we start to feel like we are closer to something real. With that growing sense of ownership, our appetite for the play now holds a confidence with a sense of focus – proven in the way we interact. We are more direct, more economic, and more passionate but perhaps less precious. We listen more. We systematically try things out, and equally throw things away.

One of the main challenges of this job is being able to operate on multiple levels. You play the part, you play the scene, you keep an outside eye on the space, you keep a sense of the arc of the story as a whole, and you think of set, you think of costume, multiple parts, appreciating and catering for the company and American audiences… the list goes on. There is a constant sense of zooming in and out, honing in and stepping back to keep the wheels turning over. Within this – the test is to remain in the moment, and never lose sight of the meaning and heart of the storytelling. As we work further into detail, our thoughts on design are contested with the question – what is important here? What do we want our audiences to experience? How much can we relinquish that control? The danger to prioritise style over substance can be tempting, but the harder choice is to ask ourselves, are we really telling this story?

That said, we have had some major breakthroughs in terms of the space we create. Hecate is an Athenian goddess who represented as three-formed, associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, light, magic, and necromancy – used in Hamlet precisely in Act III, Scene II in the play within the play, ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. Her spirit is woven all throughout the writing, and subliminally creates strong impact with many references to ‘three’, and cyclical and swirling swings even within the verse line. She is known for her wheel, and we have marked out a wheel on the floor (left), which offers us a structure from which to play.

We work with a Complicité exercise, where we follow each other on a journey through the space and pause at the junctions marked, with suspension, and then move on together. The wheel gives us the freedom of curves, but a discipline of distance, and a chance to explore our relationships, and find specificity in the meaning of eye contact, breath, silhouettes and energies. We are forced to face up to the change each character creates in space. We draw our characters out on paper to explore and make tangible decisions (left).

Peter Bray offered a brilliant take on the world of the play this week that ignited a breakthrough in me. He said that the play was all about the death of intimacy in our closest relationships. In varying levels of intensity, each bond of any purity or worth is systematically, grievously, irrevocably and deeply destroyed – whether it be fierce young love, a mother to a son, a son to an uncle, a brother to a sister, a daughter to a father, a friend to a friend. The list is long, and the loss unites this story with a raw and feverish ache. I think about our wheel, and the spaces between us. The endless potential for love and loss between two humans in space. Shakespeare transcends time, cuts right to the heart, and cries out to be heard.

“Hamlet” Fall Tour — Week 2

By Grace Andrews

The second week of rehearsal often brings a sense of freedom, as you start to move past the initial tiptoeing and polite hesitation into a place of building momentum and trust. We begin to get used to our space and its eccentricities, as much as we get used to each other and our unique rhythms. We start to make bolder choices; and through learning how to empower each other to speak, how to rally together when something is tough, and how important it is to have a cup of tea (very) – our ensemble begins to form.

The second week also brings a slight undercurrent of chaos. Wonderful imaginative chaos, but chaos nonetheless. We are overflowing with ideas, and as they fall out of us and into the space it can sometimes feel like we can’t see the wood for the trees. We duck and dive through concepts, characters, creativity – and sometimes we get lost. We are linked by our fierce passion for this story, but there is a danger of running too fast before we can walk, and falling over. But we get back up, and there is a beauty in that. In failing, spectacularly, we begin to surprise ourselves with the courage to own this process. This is as thrilling as it is terrifying – because what if we fail? ‘We fail. But screw our courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail…’ – (hold on, wrong play?)

We tumble through processes, methodologies, references, comparisons, and anecdotes. With no director, it can feel like we are five actors let loose and the rehearsal room is our playground. No rules. No watchful outside eye. There is a need to be clever, and an actor’s temptation to be interesting – both of which are healthy and inspiring – but when do we lose the story within the style?

A theme that keeps coming up to face us, head on – is gender. We cannot ignore that we have the Madeleine Hyland as our Hamlet, Wendy Morgan as our Horatio, myself as Laertes. Or can we? How important is it that we are women? Does it matter? Is it a strength? In a time where gender politics are hysterical and rife – is it enough that we speak the words, and we are human beings? Do we owe it this story to champion our feminine strength and experience?

My mind spins, and I take a moment to step back from the constant de-layering of this play. In our questions we share a sense of curiosity, which I believe to be an actor’s most vital tool.

We sadly have had Noel White leave us this week, due to family reasons, and we will miss him wholeheartedly. His energy, charisma and sense of humour lit up the room, and it is a testament to this work that after just two weeks, we felt a fondness and love for his unique spark and his Polonius.

We welcome in Peter Bray, who is wonderful, and so we look forward to Week 3 with a fresh dynamic and a new sense of play. Let the questions continue!