What hasn’t already been said about Hamlet isn’t fit to be written. It was with some trepidation that I cracked open this text – but also with a great deal of excitement. Here was a chance for everyone to get a shot at possibly the greatest – certainly the longest – role in Shakespeare; also, of course, the array of characters alongside the Prince of Denmark.
We started, appropriately enough, with one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies – “O that this too, too solid flesh…”, with all of the punctuation removed. (This is how we start every workshop, after a brief warm-up; sitting in a circle and, one at a time, doing a cold reading from an unpunctuated piece of text. Being so well-known, this exercise was slightly easier than usual. But this was intentionally a gentle start to what can be a challengingly verbose play.)
Next, we tried something out of the ordinary for the group – taking Claudius’ opening speech one line at a time, again going around the circle, and trying to make the transition from one person to another as smooth as possible. We went through the text a number of times, seeking to be increasingly presentational with each reading. This was effective, with the circle providing a suitable “court” to receive the king’s speech.
The first scene we tackled comes right after Claudius’ speech, with the king and queen encouraging Hamlet to be less gloomy. We tried this a couple of ways: with the couple genuinely concerned for Hamlet, trying to draw him out and reassure him; and the other way with them only paying lip service to Hamlet’s moodiness, but really put off by his sullenness. Both modes were defensible in the playing: certainly, taken at face value, Claudius is warm and welcoming. He is Hamlet’s uncle, after all, and wants all to be well between Gertrude, Hamlet and himself. On the other hand, the references to Claudius’ heavy drinking in the text can be played up here – he finishes the scene with reference to his intention to imbibe a good deal that evening. In our playing, Claudius was encouraged to be thinking about that drink throughout the scene, and play up his discomfort with having to remain dry while he did his duty to Gertrude by talking with the boy. For a performance, I would like to continue to explore combining both those aspects.
Next up was a brief exchange between Horatio and Hamlet. The thing we played with here was that Horatio comes in to the scene wanting to talk about having seen Hamlet’s ghost the night before; and with each line he has the intention to tell Hamlet what he saw. “My lord, I came to … see your father’s funeral.” (What he’d like to say is “…. tell you I saw your father’s ghost.” And again, when Hamlet says he thinks he sees his father, Horatio interjects “Where my lord?”, wanting to add “because I just saw him myself.” And then again, with Horatio saying “I saw him….once, he was a goodly king” – one can imagine him wanting desperately to reveal “…as a GHOST, LAST NIGHT!”. Of course, in the very next line, he does just that.
The third scene we looked at was between Ophelia, Laertes and Polonius, and marked the first time that I heavily edited a scene to make it fit the needs of the workshop format. I wanted it to be as conversational as possible, without Laertes or Polonius simply holding the floor for 20 lines at a time. This allowed the beats of: Laertes tells Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s affections, Polonius to arrive in time to hear the tail end of their conversation and tell Ophelia to cut Hamlet off from her completely. It was fun having a woman play Polonius; and I particularly enjoyed that Polonius urges Laertes to get moving off to Paris, when the only thing preventing him is Polonius himself.
The final scene was between Hamlet and the ghost of his father; also heavily edited. After an initial straightforward reading, we changed the setting to a diner; the idea being to make this as conversational and connected as possible. They sat opposite each other and spoke directly. With more time, I would explore this further. They both want things from each other, on an emotional and visceral level. The “ghostliness” of Hamlet Sr. can make for heightened drama – but can lose sight of the immediacy and urgency with which the ghost is trying to impart his message to his son. We moved on to a very different take on the scene, with the ghost’s lines split between four actors, who moved on a diagonal past young Hamlet repeatedly. (I confess, this idea came directly from Anthony Kingston, from a production at St. Andrews University many years ago!) This played up the supernatural, surreal, aspects of the scene. There was much that was effective here; and one could explore choral speaking, physical contact with Hamlet, and choreography of movement in general. Most interesting to me would be to explore Hamlet Sr.’s humanity in this scene: his suffering in purgatory, his horror at what was done to him by his own brother and wife and his relationship (or lack of it) with his son.
This blog covers the Meetup.com workshop session conducted on January 11, 2015.
Re-published with permission from the Toronto Shakespeare Workshop (https://www.meetup.com/Toronto-Shakespeare-in-Performance-Workshop/)
Organiser: Justin Hay
See the next Toronto Shakespeare Workshop playreading report at the following link: