Rehearsing an abandoned Hamlet: production journal

March 2010

6 years ago my production of ‘Hamlet’ – to be set in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake and performed in Shanghai – was aborted one month before opening night.  In light of recent preoccupations, I hope that the following condensed extract from my production journal will prove to be instructive.  Where needed, actor’s names have been replaced with (e.g.) “S…” or

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I don’t necessarily have a strict regimen by which I run rehearsals.  I think it’s important to involve the actors at all stages, but not to the point of democracy.  If everyone enacted their ideas we’d get nowhere, and very slowly too.

I started with Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes and Polonius.  My mission here is to produce a smart, sassy, and thoroughly subjected Ophelia.  This will be contingent as much on the actions of those who surround her than on her own determination.

I’d already defined the sections I wanted to work on.  It’s really important to me not to try to do too much at a rehearsal; never to gloss over something because of time constraint.  So tonight, 7 – 10, in the Children’s Theatre Rehearsal Rooms in the central Shanghai, I’d planned twelve pages of text in 3 hours.  (We didn’t finish.)  The four of us started by sitting and reading through the section I wanted to run.  I asked everyone to make a pencilled note of any word, phrase, idea that confused or enlightened them; we then discussed these before moving to the floor and physicalising (wd?) the scene.  My only direction for the first run through is ‘move in any way you feel is right; do whatever comes through instinct’.

I think it’s really important to watch actors’ feet as they interact in these early stages.  Which direction are they pointing in?  Do they face away from the person they’re talking to?  At which precise moments do they move either towards or away from something or someone.  Why does Laertes inch towards Ophelia when telling her not to “open up her chaste treasure” for Hamlet.  Is he protective?  Is he jealous?  Angry?  Then I’ll talk these movements through to the actors after the first run, ask them why they think they moved at a certain point.

By this time, I start to see how the dynamics work here, so I will make lots of suggestions for movement.  For example, when Hamlet says ‘Farewell’ at the start of the nunnery scene, is he intending to leave or does he want Ophelia to leave.  How would he signal these?  Working this out can reveal lots about the power relations between the two.

I always make clear that we are just experimenting at this stage (even though I know some of these movements will make it to closing night), and that the actors have as much right to make suggestions as I do.  Sometimes they are excellent too.  Ophelia to put a flower in Laertes’ button hole as she tells him to avoid the “primrose path of dalliance” back in Paris.  Polonius to remove the flower and snap the stem when warning his son not to dress gaudily, then handing the broken flower to his daughter without making eye contact with her.  In this way, with simple gestures, we can quickly fill in lots of family background that otherwise the text does not give time for.  It’s very important to me to establish these relationships quickly, particularly when working with what to some will be an arcane text.

…We also started on the nunnery scene, from the end of ‘To be…’ to Ophelia’s beautiful ‘What a noble mind is here o’erthrown…’ speech.  I want Hamlet to grab her by the back of the neck and push her to the ground, then go down next to her, all while reciting, ‘If thou must be a breeder of sinners’.  Here Hamlet’s language is curt, dismissive, disgusted.  D… says this doesn’t feel right.  We chat about it.  I have to be mindful that my actors are two people who have only just met and are carrying a little self-consciousness.  I still like the idea.  We leave it in for now.  What this does is get Ophelia down to her knees in spite of herself, from where she can deliver the closing lament.

Her stillness here will be enthralling, she can make a great virtue of having been momentarily enslaved by reeling off a fine intelligent response from her crouched position.  I can spotlight her and then have Claudius and Polonius emerge from hiding / listening in on the scene, to discuss it while standing over her, without even acknowledging her.  Polonius can then usher his daughter off stage when he and the King leave.

We also worked on Ophelia’s first madness scene.  I told S… of my costume idea – a nightdress that converts into a straight-jacket – and we moved through how and when her arms might be tied.  I also want her to grab Claudius by the balls when she sings ‘By Cock they are to blame’.  This will evince the bawdiness of her language, clarify her journey from sane maid to foul-mouthed lunatic, and make the rottenness of Denmark apparent on yet another level.