Question: when is a play not a play?
Answer: when it’s Hamlet.
It’s always the Tuesday evening after the final Sunday performance that it hits you that it’s over. In the States, that is. In England and Australia other timetables apply.
In American regional theatre when Tuesday showtime comes, the company has dispersed and is many miles away from the stage where they lately were a performing unit. And that’s when the muscle memory kicks in. If you did a vocal warm up (as I did on this one), there’s no reason to do one today. The identity that you checked at the stage door on a daily basis for the past six weeks makes a pale attempt to repossess your psyche, while the identity that you crafted in the work is now as surplus to requirements as the costume you donned.
I’ve been at large in American regional theatre for over seven years now and I’d just like to put it on record that it’s a falsity to think or to say that theatre in this country is not subsidized. On the contrary, it is heavily subsidized by all who work in it. I find it moving that actors driven by vocational passion will travel far from home on the chance of a good production and live their dream for a few brief weeks, knowing that they’ll likely return to selling pizza when it’s over.
A return to Little Rock Arkansas, my second time there but my first ever in Hamlet. If anyone had told me back in college – yes, you will be in a production of Hamlet one day… in Little Rock… well I wouldn’t have thunk it.
And why is Hamlet not a play? Not an ordinary play at least?
Because it is so well known that some audiences could sing along with the text. In Little Rock we performed in more or less ideal conditions for a production of this play in the modern age. Fewer people around here have seen the play than in say New York where film star Jude Law recently played it. What does this mean? It means that the audience actually follows the story (it’s a good one), rather than evaluating the production/acting/design as they go.
Personally I’ve always found Hamlet to be a tough one. Long, confusing, hard to follow. I speak as one who knows the text well. As a young actor I listened to Sir John Gielgud (surely the greatest exponent of Shakespearean verse speaking) on more or less endless loop. I’ve seen a couple of dozen Hamlets, admired actors, but seldom if ever been moved by a production – Anton Lessor in Jonathan Miller’s was an exception.
George Hall, who ran the acting course at Central in London where I trained, said “On the first night of Hamlet, the questions were the same: “Will they get it? Will the fights work? And will the old fool playing the king remember his lines?”
Now that I am that old fool I know what he meant.
George was full of wise saws and modern instances, and in those days I thought he knew just about everything there was to know about acting – still think that, actually.
Of Robert Newton, he said: “His final consonants were a matter of chance, he had a body that was held together by tension, but when he came on as the button moulder in act four of Peer Gynt, he was coming from a place that most of us have never been to.’
We had an actor like that in Little Rock. His name is Harris Berlinsky and the world is a better place because he is in it. Harris played Polonius with easy grace. His portrayal of the character was accessible and fascinating, yet his backstage confusions were legendary. It was never certain which of the four entrances he would use to get on stage. Occasionally he made a guest entrance in a scene in which Polonius does not usually appear, wandering off about half way through. It was a great pleasure and a privilege to work with him.
A theatrical company away from home is a meeting of intimate strangers who become friends. Replicating behaviors together for the public view, binds you as a group. The character of such groups varies hugely. In the larger theatrical centres the group is vulnerable to the follies of status, ambition, and competition. But usually, regionally, those pressures are less. This particular collection of abstracts and brief chronicles was multi-national, multi ethnic, and multi talented. We included a sharpshooter, indie film makers, linguists (portuguese, japanese, mandarin, spanish), fabulous amateur bakers, corporate consultants, and sundry entrepreneurs.
Even to someone familiar with the play, hearing a performance from backstage is an experience full of small and new recognitions of text. “Ah that’s where that comes from.” So much of the text has passed into everyday usuage. To name but a few:
In my mind’s eye
The primrose path of dalliance
Brevity is the soul of wit
Caviar to the general
The lady doth protest too much
Assume a virtue if you have it not
A hit, a very palpable hit
For quotability Hamlet stands alone. From: “… neither a borrower nor a lender be…” through “… there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…” to “… and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
And what about titles derived?
The play’s the thing (Molnar & P. G. Wodehouse)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard)
Single Spies (Alan Bennet)
Summer’s Lease (John Mortimer)
And a casual search turned up this amazing anagram:
To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…
In one of the Bard’s best thought of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.
Or to quote another Shakespearean epilogue: “The King’s a beggar now the play is done…”