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13th January 2008 - Southwark Playhouse
Hamlet is a play you think you know.
I thought I knew it really quite well until I saw a production in a borrowed theatre on a borrowed set by actors who weren’t sure what was going to happen in front of an audience who had no idea either.
This is everything I didn’t know about Hamlet:
I am used to seeing work-in-progress but you don’t usually see the “progress” bit, you see a still frame of the work so far. There’s usually a sleight-of-hand about it, the audience is asked to fill in gaps, make allowances, imagine through half-closed eyes how it will look when it is finished. This was work progressing - often in front of your eyes.
It was like taking a sledgehammer to the play and pounding it into a thousand pieces. Some of these pieces were unrecognisable, some were beautiful beyond description, some were incomprehensible, and some were the most Hamletest essence of Hamlet imaginable.
Normally a theatre holds an audience and shows the audience the play like a waiter holding a chair out. The theatre space is a neat conduit. This theatre was a kaleidoscope.
As the play moved the audience were herded around - at first a bit like reluctant primary children. Early on, this prodding feels rather rude: your seat is warm and you’ve got used to the large coat or the noisy breathing of the person you’re sitting next to. You worry your next seat might not be quite as good. But that is early on when you’re only just getting the hang of this tightrope theatre thing. Soon, you’re looking forward to the next space and the new setting. The play becomes an object you can walk around and admire from different angles.
By Act Four in the bar the playing space was the size of a double bed and the audience and actors accommodated each other like water and foam or like friends at a picnic.
By Act Five the line between the audience and the company had disappeared almost completely and characters emerged out of rows of onlookers. I have experienced only a few times the sensation that the action is so involving and so generously shared that it would not be inappropriate to wander onto the stage. The story has become something like an event in a public space – if you’re needed, you get involved; if you’re not, you hang back to see what will happen next.
When Hamlet held a real baby
What a piece of work is a man…
the baby’s mouth opened in surprise but he did not cry
…And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust
the baby trusted into Hamlet’s shoulder in the way that babies do
and the lines were realised more dangerously than I had ever heard them before in fact - the play left the building for a moment altogether.
Every person in the theatre then was having the same thought at the same time and everyone knew that that thought was everyone else’s thought and furthermore that if you tried to articulate the thought that brought hot tears into the back of your eye and caught something in your chest, it would break.
Shakespeare’s most familiar words became too molten to say or even listen to.
There was no interpretation that some director or actor had discovered – no revolutionary re-reading of the play. It was a jigsaw that I was allowed to piece together. It was a view of the play I was allowed to see simply because the play had been honestly and carefully unfolded before me. My neighbour might have realised that night that Hamlet was about Fatherhood. His neighbour might have seen a story about the inevitable betrayal, the impossibility of absolute love. Any actor in the company might have been performing a play about the last row they had with their partner or how they nearly got that job last week.
This is the quality of a really fine piece of work. That there is no dictation. That we are allowed to read the story through the spectacles of our own life. You pick up a book or go to the theatre or listen to a piece of music to hear the words you need to hear because only through the prism of the personal are we able to think about the big, really terrifying subjects that we would rather turn away from. So this sometimes rambling, chaotic, explosive and volatile approach is a triumph of interpretation because a key ingredient we have to bring to the watching of it is ourselves. Watching this play you have to realise that your role is not to judge or compare but to listen and respond, however imperceptibly – and if you don’t or can’t accept that invitation, the experience is really not much fun at all. If you do it is a relief and a holiday from the professional theatre-going we are all accustomed to.
In every sense this was a realisation of a play. There were a lot of realisations: the kind that open your mouth slightly and tickle your scalp. It was a drive-by performance especially powerful when those realisations happened to the performer who understood that they were no more in control of that “Oh, I get it” moment, than the people watching them.
In the audience you have to accept that this was a Hamlet that was about Moments. There were moments when the inspiration was incredible, almost divine, then disastrous and childish, unfunny, delicious, clumsy, soaring. It began to not matter because we were searching for the next moment. Everyone. Audience and company.
It was like standing in the kop.
Or something like it, if you don’t like football.
By the last Act, Hamlet was being rewritten. The final duel was a surreal and rather preposterous word battle; the audience littered the whole theatre, it felt like we had taken over in a benign kind of a way. One of the most chilling scenes in the play became weirdly funny and everyone was slightly euphoric, hysterical.
At the beginning of the evening the company used carefully selected props and explained them clearly to the audience: there was a lot of pointing and italicising language to make sure the audience over there was following. As we went on together, actors and audience were in the same race and props and people were grabbed, offered, used and discarded without a flicker.
There is a special thrill seeing an actor blind-sided by language, their own words, but when they are tipped off balance by the play itself, it is incendiary. When the play was running on its own tracks and the actors were pounding along beside it, desperate to jump on board, like a bad dream where your objective is forever only an inch out of reach, that was when the chaos took shape and when we knew why we had come.
And that was largely because we all believed the runaway was running away.
And that is letting the play do the work.
And that is so rare - possibly because it requires nothing less than a huge heart and an overwhelming need to know more, more, more about your work, your audience and your play and why the hell you ever wanted to go near a stage in the first place.
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, Apr 15 2008, 8:17 AM EDT
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