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Playreading Report: Hamlet, Edinburgh, 15th Jan 2017

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We ran what I thought was our best play-reading ever on Sunday, 15th January, using our newly-published edition of Hamlet. There were eight of us, which is probably the perfect number for the type of play-reading we run. This review will cover both how the play-reading went, and how the technology worked. I’ll start with the play-reading – the important stuff – and then update you on the technology.



Hamlet play-reading:


Eight of us gathered to read Hamlet on a Sunday afternoon. Eight is a good number to read the play. This casting gives fairly even-sized parts. With the exception of Player 1, all the players have between 224 and 519 lines, so the speaking is fairly evenly distributed, and each player is kept busy playing most of the time. Of course, Player 1 plays the character Hamlet, and has over 1,100 lines, but there’s not much one can do about that – it’s a big part. We have tried splitting the role at half-time, but it’s not very satisfactory having two different Hamlets in one performance.


We allocate the different player roles by lot, by drawing a ‘Player No’ from a bowl. This approach usually gives us interesting castings, which one would never come up with if you were choosing who should play which role, mostly because there’s a natural inclination to cast by gender, and by age, if you can. The gods were on our side on Sunday: Queen Gertrude was played by a middle-aged man; Ophelia and Osric again by an aging man;; and Horatio by a woman. But best of all, a woman was cast as Hamlet. This was so good because: the woman concerned is one of the better actors in the group; and she’s a bit obsessed with the play – she’s finishing writing a book about it. So she knew the part rather well, and her performance was vigorous and exciting. I found myself engaged with her changing emotions in each speech. This is what, for me, makes a part, and a play come alive – we watch a play in part to hear the story that is told, but mostly to see the changing emotions of the players as they speak their speeches and play their parts.


This has reminded me that our software can help an actor discover those emotions, and I hope to add to our edition of Hamlet later this week, ways of exploring Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and maybe Ophelia, and indeed, any other character in our published plays. Watch this space.


I want to, and the group has asked me to, stress that the gender of the players and the relationship to the characters they’re playing is simply irrelevant. It takes less than a minute to forget that Hamlet is being played by a woman, or Ophelia and Gertrude are being played by men – it’s just irrlevant. So, when you start running a play-reading (or even putting on a production), don’t think you need to cast by gender or by age. Quality of acting and interest in the part are probably important.


Anyway, with Hamlet giving out so much energy, the rest of the players were soon encouraged to raise their games, and the reading came alive. I sometimes look around the group, as we’re play-reading, and usually everyone is following the script, but yesterday, far more of the players were listening to the speeches of others, a sign, I thought, of a deeper level of engagement with the performance.


It’s a funny things in a play-reading performance that each player is both a member of the audience, and a performer, which gives play-reading a unique place in the many ways there are of exploring Shakespeare.


In the discussion after the play-reading quite a number of things came out which different players had discovered in the play-reading, and I’d like to share some of them:


I discovered that Hamlet was much older than I thought. I’ve always thought of him as a late adolescent – in his late teens, perhaps, but it’s clear from the grave-digger that Yorrick has been dead for 23 years, and Hamlet has been taken on Yorrick’s back ‘thousand s of times’ and that makes him probably at least 28 or turning 30.


Hamlet seems to dislike the deceit (or ‘seeming’) of Polonius and the King. And yet he loves ‘The Players’ whose profession is to ‘Play parts’ – itself a form of deceit. Of course, it’s a fairly honest form of deceit – we all know they’re playing. Curious!


Horatio is probably the most difficult part to play. He talks a bit at the beginning of the play (when dealing with the Ghost), and at the end of the play (when he tells Fortinbras of Hamlet’s death), and in between he doesn’t have many speeches of substance to say, though he has more lines than Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. He’s obviously smart, and not afraid to say what he thinks – in A5S2, in response to the King’s bet on the duel, he says: “You will lose this wager, my Lord.” One of our group had a theory that Horatio is the spy whose cover is never blown.



Let’s close this section with a brief discussion of ‘Highlit Text’ and ‘Parts and Cues’. In Highlit Text mode, each player sees the whole script of the play, with the characters that player is playing highlit in different colours. In Parts and Cues mode, each player sees only their lines and their cues from other players. Parts and Cues mode is  very similar to what Elizabethan / Jacobean players were given to learn their parts and it is, of course, what every player has to do on stage in a production. They have to know their lines, and listen out for their cues. This is probably why those of our group who are actors tend to prefer  ‘Parts and Cues’ whereas academics or teachers, who love Shakespeare’s lines, tend to prefer Highlit Text.  I guess that at least 3 of our 8 players were using ‘Parts and Cues’ mode, with the rest on Highlit Text.


The problem is that, if someone using Parts and Cues loses their place, the play-reading tends to fall apart. This happened a couple of times with Hamlet, and so we’ve decided that someone, reading Highlit Text, needs to take responsibility for being the ‘Prompt’. Incidentally, in Elizabethan / Jacobean productions, the prompt was on stage, with a conductor’s baton, for just this reason, I suspect.


The software we use for the play-reading:


This is one of the first play-readings we’ve run using our new format of play (with the standard index down the right-hand side of the script), and the first, I think, which supported downloads of scripts so a player can read the script locally, without accessing the script on the Internet.


On the whole, the process went well, but there were some interesting learnings which we will implement:


There’s a silly problem which results from showing which parts each player can read in each casting. Some players will look at all of the castings, looking for a combination of roles which suits their particular, extraordinary skill-set, and try and persuade you to give them that, without thinking about what that does to the rest of the cast. For example player A, might really fancy Player 2 from the casting for 6, whilst Player B wants Player 5 from the Casting for 7, and I think I could do exceptionally well with Player 3 from the casting for 8.


This nonsense has to be stopped before it gest going. The casting to be useed is defined by how many people are there to do the play-reading. And then you can only select a Player from that casting. (That’s another reason why casting by lot is good). Anything else is a recipe for disaster. Think about it and it will become clear why.


If you only allocate parts for the play-reading when players arrive for the play-reading, and some readers are reading on the Internet, and some are reading downloaded scripts, it is probably better if one person downloads all the scripts, and emails the appropriate script to the appropriate player. Otherwise you’ll lose an hour getting everyone to get the right script downloaded. In our case, we had 3 players reading on downloaded scripts, and 5 reading the Internet script.


The technology is irrelevant to the play-reading – what makes the play-reading good is the quality of the playing. However, when the technology goes wrong, and ‘interrupts’ the play-reading it really messes things up. I have taken a note to make the technology as invisisable as possible, so we can get on with the play-reading. Let me give you an example of how things can go wrong. One of our readers was using a Window laptop, and was scrolling using the keyboard. 2 or 3 times he lost his place, and the play-reading was interrupted. Far better to be using a tablet with a touch-sensitive screen. Without a doubt, if you can afford it, an Apple iPad (full size or mini) with iBooks is the most ‘transparent’ e-reader, particularly if iBooks is in ‘Scroll’ mode where you just scroll down through the whole play. If you can’t afford Apple iPads, the next best thing is probably the much cheaper Amazon Fire with the latest version of their software, but not running Kindle e-reader (which reads azw3 files and not epubs), but using an  e-reader called eLibrary  (costs approx $1.50 for the professional version, which you need, from the Amazon appstore) which will let you read epubs and supports highlit text.


Let me end with a non-technological problem. Our script is based on the First Folio, and there are some significant differences between this script and what people usually think of as Hamlet (usually a confabulation of ‘the best bits’ from the First Folio; Q1 and Q2). A4S4 in particular, is an extraordinarily short scene in the First Folio. I even went so far as to check my facsimile of the First Folio, and there it is, as we’ve kept it. This cuts one of Hamlet’s well-know soliloquies, and makes one wonder why the scene is there at all. We’ve left it as it is, because my own view is that each of the main versions of the play Q1, Q2, and FirstFolio, is probably a working script with a clear plot which works as a play. Having all the ‘best bits’ of Hamlet in the same script may be nice for the Shakespeare language lovers, but there’s no guarantee that the plot makes any sense, or that the play works on stage. Our hearts are firmly with the player.


So there, you are. For our new play structure, we’ve kicked the tyres; taken it for a run, and we’ll be using it from now on. We’ll be working hard to make it easier to use, with more ways for you to explore the plays, and hope you’ll use it to. It’s a great little runner!!!


Let’s play!


Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’



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