As an actor partial to Shakespeare and the classics, I find their relevancy in their untamed nature. How better to really “get at” Shakespeare, than to visit his works at their infancy. Perhaps they’re not the words he truly jotted down, but, to be fair, his earliest drafts were probably just as scattered, and the resulting plays greatly improvised.
|Horatio (Rachel Matuse, center-left) comforts the dying Hamlet (Alex
Dabertin, center-right) in Bad Quarto's production of Hamlet.
Looking at a “Bad” Quarto version of a play is like encountering a puzzle. You have all these clues and pieces, and it’s up to you as an actor or director to correctly decipher. As the gravedigger hurls another scull from Ophelia’s to-be pit, does Hamlet exclaim, “Look, there’s another Horatio,” mocking his friend? Or, “Look, there’s another, Horatio,” simply pointing out the decrepit head? In a style of acting where punctuation is key, the lack thereof is exciting and leaves so much room for interpretation.
If I had a time machine, I certainly could not pick one destination. But a top ten would definitely be witnessing an original production by The Chamberlain’s Men. They were loud; they were gritty; they had clowns and improvisers, men in women’s clothing, live music, and in some cases, animals. There were no electrical light changes, and all soundscapes came from the creativity of their musicians. I think there is great merit to be had in recreating this process today. And what better way than with the earliest edition of the play?
I don’t think I’ve ever been as bonded with an ensemble as I am with my cast of Hamlet. When actors talk about trust, they generally refer to a shared feeling comradery on the stage. “You drop a line? We got your back, buddy.” In this case, the trust is that your entire ensemble will know their lines and cues, and if they don’t, someone will find a way to improvise their way out of a scene in which no one else knows where it could possibly be going. I memorized my part of Horatio on my own, under Tony’s guidance, but once you’re on that stage, you realize you have no idea if the actor your opposite will even say the cue that you’re waiting for. When they do, there is a moment of relief, followed by the quick realization that “Oops, that’s right, it’s my turn to speak! Hope I get this right…”
This process is incredibly challenging, but as the saying goes: With high risk, comes high reward. You cannot be off your game during a performance with Bad Quarto Productions, which only ensures that you have high caliber stage actors, in my opinion. This game is not for everyone. You have to be brave, and reliable, and consistent. I would not trust myself or this performance with any other people than this cast. You must possess a passion for originality and quirk and a spirit that has resilience when a scene completely derails.
In many ways, these productions have given me a better affinity for the work done by Shakespeare’s troupe. Granted, by the time they performed Hamlet, they had been doing several shows in rep—I’ve only worked with a handful of actors in this cast once before. But there’s a market to be had, I think, in another troupe of traveling actors performing on the spot productions written by a brilliant man. Staged in a day, basically improvised opening night. They did it, and now we can recreate (as best we can) that sensation, complete with opening music—but no animals, unfortunately.
I love Shakespeare, and I love well-conceived, thematic presentations of his works. But I also understand that if we dug him up, and asked him what he thought of Shakespeare in the Park’s Romeo and Juliet, he’d probably say, “Wot, lads? You’re still doin’ that shite? I wrote that fo’ me friends and a drunk bunch o’ scallywags.” Except he would not have recognized any of the language I just used. But what I’m getting at is that we’ve put his plays on this pedestal, and as an actor, it’s so refreshing to pull them down and examine them through the eyes of him and his men. It’s fun—and scary—to meet up with your troupe and barely know the play you’re about to perform, but trust that it’s going to be a good one. Because if there’s anyone we can trust in, it’s William Shakespeare.