Friday, March 18, 2016

Playing Hamlet

Playing Hamlet is, above all, intimidating. This is an old cliché, but like all of the oldest clichés, it has stuck to the collective consciousness for a reason: it is true. Hamlet gives us one of the most interesting considerations of suicide and the ending of life of any character in Western literature. Hamlet is Shakespeare to most. Not as Prospero is William Shakespeare the artist/magician; rather, Hamlet embodies the struggle between the self-fashioning philosophies of the Renaissance with the order and heroism of the Medieval that animates, to my mind, the very heart of Shakespeare’s work. “What is I?” has always seemed like Shakespeare’s most persistent question, and Hamlet is that question made flesh and interesting and dramatic.

Hamlet (Alex Dabertin) prepares to kill the
King (John Walbolt) in Bad Quarto's Hamlet

How do I embody all that? Obviously I cannot, but I must try.

Most actors get to be supported in this mad, open, painful endeavor by a cast and director they meet in the flesh every day or a few times a week. They get to be grieved and sallied together, and the actor playing Hamlet can let himself be as much of an ensemble member as he is able, which, in my consideration, is the best thing any actor can do. I, on the other hand, must struggle almost alone.

Some romantic teenagers, some Hamlets, out there might think that I am lucky, that my near complete autonomy allows me to find my true Hamlet, a Hamlet more original and more real than any other. Unfortunately, an actor, at least this actor, is not an original creature—we imitate at start and move from there: reacting, pushing, and seeing what happens outside. Completely original emotional fabrication on the part of an actor has a name: “camp.” And Hamlet does the solitary actor no favors. All of Hamlet’s greatest soliloquies (or part soliloquy, depending on what text one uses), are direct reactions to what is happening onstage, and many of Hamlet’s most powerful emotional beats spur forth while he is surrounded, none of which I can practice ahead of time. It is the confusion around him that reflects and feeds his struggle.

Bad Quarto Productions force me to develop my part in a near vacuum and in that way make me work in almost the purest form of theatrical acting. I must first hone my breathing and my mental casting so that I can imagine many possible reactions to my lines and make all of the options supported. I must be aware that I am being observed and try to make myself a dynamic stage presence, and most of all, for Hamlet, I must make sure my images are crystal clear. It is the montage of my mental images, their juxtaposition, order, and duration, which embodies the sole creative portion of my acting process. The rest are following certain rules, at best creatively, yes, but overall line memorization and movement are basically rote activities—as modern convention mostly desires them to be. My mental life, however, is entirely mine, and in a Bad Quarto production, it is almost untainted

This is not a necessarily good thing. While, yes, this autonomy makes me feel good, it does not always mean that I see the forest for the trees, or even that I have seen the trees as they are at all. This monomania is the reason why directors exist, I find. Tony nudges me to look again at the text I am speaking: what is the cadence the verse wants me to use? Should I agree or go against the grain? What is happening? Why does Hamlet say these things? Actors need directors. Young actors need them more.

I have been so influenced by all the Hamlets I have seen, and all the classes I have taken on the Prince…and my own particular biases—such as the fact that my father died when I was very young and so have never really had the feeling Hamlet has, the fact that I sometimes hate men as a rule, particularly when they are cruel to women—that I could not see certain developments in the text. The most important of these interactions was directed around the “nunnery” scene.

I could find nothing but Hamlet’s unnecessary misogynist tirade against Ofelia. I could neither forgive him nor understand him. I almost did not want to. It was at this time that Tony took me by the hand and led me through my trepidation to an understanding that felt much more natural and real than I could before have hoped. That being said, Tony and I disagree sometimes too. Directors also need actors to deflate their own assumptions, too.

Influence has been a problem in another way in this process as well: the undue influence of the Second Quarto and Folio texts of Hamlet. Often I have found myself slipping into the more famous verse rather than the more contradictory lines of our working text. The example that most comes to mind is “that puzzles the will,” rather than “that puzzles the brain and confound the sense.” Easy enough to see why the mind gravitates towards the more common version, but that is no excuse. This textual sensitivity—and the directness of the first quarto—has been a boon, however. I must be more concerned about what the real goal of Hamlet’s words is because I must speak words I do not think of as Hamlet’s. In a way, that makes them more mine than any of my friends’ previous turns as Hamlet.

I have very little more to say about Hamlet. I am still nailing down all of my lines; I am still finding out what I will be when I am on stage; I am still in process. This is a good place to be…but it is terrifying. I want to be so perfectly settled that no one can tell I am human, that would make me feel safe. It would be terrible theater, but I could do my job.

In the end, I will have to be terrified onstage, which, I think and hope, will allow me to touch the most visceral aspect of Hamlet’s life as we see it onstage: his terror and confusion. Hamlet is smarter than pretty much everybody onstage, but too often that translates into him being shown as some Bugs Bunny like infallible being. I do not want that. I want my Hamlet, if nothing else, to be achingly human, afraid, and confused, as I feel he should be. I now can only do the work to make sure that my terror is not hollowly mine but Hamlet’s as well.   

No comments:

Post a Comment