Archive for the 'characters' Category

Hamlet on Trial

February 9, 2007

A real Supreme Court Justice will preside over a trial; real lawyers will argue whether Hamlet was insane when he murdered Polonius.


I love this. But there’s really no question. Hamlet has to have been sane — conscious of and responsible for what he did — or nothing is at stake dramatically.

I’m not reviving this blog. Just couldn’t resist posting this. But I may soon start a new blog for my new job… I’ll post details here within a few weeks…


Video: Act II, Scene 2

September 12, 2006

This is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first scene with Hamlet. In this production, this was their first entrance; the earlier scene with the King and Queen was cut.

My goal here was to set up a strong relationship between Hamlet and his old friends — see this post on my analysis of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and this post about directing this scene.

A bit about the technical aspects of the video below.

This is cut together from two different performances. I shot one with my shitty camera, sitting close to the center front part of the audience. I borrowed two cameras from actors in the show to shoot another performance with a total of three cameras — the nice camera (thanks, Crystal!) was house left, another was at the back of the main audience area, and my crappy camera was house right and gave me almost unusable footage (you can see a few shots that I had to rebalance the contrast in Final Cut to use at all). There was heavy wind the night we had three cameras, which plays havoc with the sound. And theatre on video always seems to magically sap the chemistry and vitality that makes live theatre work.

Still, I think I’m fairly happy with how this turned out, all things considered. This was one of my favorite scenes in performance: I love what the actors do with the language, and I’m happy with the rhythm and staging choices we made. Hopefully some of that comes across in the video.

rethinking Polonius

June 5, 2006

Before rehearsals began, I wrote this post about my take on Polonius. I'm still taken with those ideas about the character — essentially, that he is emotionally withdrawn, using wordplay and cleverness to keep actual emotional contact at arm's length. However, I developed this take on the character before casting, and the addition of the actor can change the whole equation.

I know some people in the cast are reading this, so let me quickly say this: I am EXTREMELY happy with our Polonius and all the work he's doing. Directors always adjust their ideas to fit the actors and designers; that collaboration is what makes theatre so exciting, and I'm choosing Polonius here as an example of something positive that happens all the time.

There were two guys at the auditions that I seriously considered for Polonius. One of them would have worked perfectly with the somewhat non-traditional ideas that I had about the character — he's a strong actor who takes direction and makes big choices. The other was a natural Polonius — his first cold read of the scene with the King and Queen and the letter was spot-on and laugh-out-loud funny. I ended up casting the first of these two in another role, and the second as Polonius. He's a wonderful actor, delightful to work with and to watch, and his take on Polonius is completely different from how I originally envisioned it.

And that's fine. At the very first rehearsal, I talked to him a bit about my ideas. He was game, but it quickly became clear that those ideas were holding him back instead of turning him loose, and the magic that happened in his audition didn't have room to flow.

That's a crux that every director faces all the time. There are two choices. Either you can push the actor to deliver your ideas, what is sometimes called "building the performance on the actor." This can mean long hours of rehearsal in which the director ends up making the actor's choices and staging everything in minute detail. Sometimes, with a poor casting choice and an important enough idea behind it, this is necessary and is worth the extra time and frustration and ill will it generates in the actor. Usually, though, it's far better for everyone and for the show when the director can let go of the original idea, adjusting her take on the play to fit the actor that has been cast. If the director and the director's vision are flexible enough to allow this, it gives the actors a chance to do their best work, and for the creative juices to keep flowing.

In this particular situation, it was an easy choice. The actor's natural instincts are a much more traditional take on Polonius anyway — a take on the character that has worked in countless productions. And he is a wonderful actor who brings true warmth and charm to Polonius; his blustering is endearing and his death is much more tragic. The next time I direct Hamlet, maybe I'll end up making my original choice. For this production, I'm thrilled to be able to adjust my analysis to fit such a delightful actor.

Stopping Stoppard

May 25, 2006

More staging tonight. Hamlet was late — defending his MFA Thesis (he passed). We were scheduled to block the first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene (which in this cut of the script is their first scene with Hamlet), so I ended up using the extra time to talk through their backstory a little more. Having a woman as Rosencrantz, and playing them as a young couple, seems to work with no problems. I think if we were doing it to make some kind of point it would be weird. So long as we don't ever make a big deal out of it I don't think it takes anything away from the text.

The actor playing Guildenstern is a big Stoppard fan and agrees with me that a primary challenge is getting Stoppard's take on these characters out of our heads. In Shakespeare's play, and especially in our production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not totally clueless — they don't know the contents of the King's letter, but they definitely remember their lifelong friendship with Hamlet and their main goal in the play is to help their increasingly insane friend. I told him the key to getting away from Stoppard is to get as specific as we can with our circumstances, and having a woman as Rosencrantz helps with this. We've decided they're rich kids, bohemians, used to travelling around Europe and attending fashionable theaters and nightclubs.

Also took a crack at the get thee to a nunnery scene; that's one that I suspect will change as the actors' understanding of it deepens. We staged the play-within-the-play, took a quick pass at the opening, and did some Hamlet and Horatio from the bit between the funeral and the fencing match.

Rehearsal Report 5/22/06 – recasting Rosencrantz

May 23, 2006

As I've noted before, it's hard to blog about casting issues — especially as they're happening. So many possibilities for creating confusion or hurt feelings. But something came up last week that I'd like to write about, and it has now all been resolved.

We had to replace our Guildenstern. The reasons aren't important here. Having to replace an actor at the last minute is a very common thing to happen (I like to think this happens less often as people are getting paid more, but so far as I can tell it happens to everyone).

At the auditions, it quickly became clear that we had far more women in the casting pool than men (another common occurrence). Hamlet has just two roles for women (three if you count the Player Queen), so I knew it would help the big casting picture if I could cast a woman in a role written for a man. The most likely candidates were always Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio, but I really wanted two of those three to be male. My initial casting had men as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (doubled with the Priest and Fortinbras), and a woman as Horatio (playing Horatio as a tomboyish female with a bit of an unspoken crush on Hamlet; it works out great).

So when Guildenstern left the production my response was to replace him with another man. But taking a role in a summer show for not a lot of money is a lot to ask at the last minute, and the other men from the auditions that would have worked in the role had all made other commitments. I searched elsewhere — talked to a friend of one of the actors in the cast, for example — and still couldn't find anyone with a schedule that would work.

Tonight was our last night of tabletalk in groups; I knew I needed to have the role filled by tonight if it wasn't going to affect the schedule. I could have kept looking for a guy, but the process of getting in touch, having him read a bit, and confirming the schedule takes so long that I knew if I didn't find someone and have everything confirmed by Saturday I would go with Plan B. And that's what happened.

Fortunately, Plan B is pretty great. Because we had so many great women audition, I was able to cast a hugely talented actress in the small role of the Player Queen. Another great actress was cast in Comedy of Errors and not in Hamlet — she's now playing the Player Queen, and the original Player Queen is now Rosencrantz (I moved the man originally playing Rosencrantz to Guildenstern, because somehow if one of them is female the lines just make more sense that way). That guy is also playing both the Priest and Fortinbras. Before making any of these offers, I was careful to consult with the costume designer on whether she still had time to change plans and come up with a skirt for Rosencrantz.

So now, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a couple. All my prep work on them still holds true. The scenes all play the same way, with an interesting added texture. It's important to me — on this show — that the cross-gender casting not feel like a big deal. We tabletalked all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's scenes tonight, and everything works just fine.  And it's an added bonus that we're still working with the same group of actors; we're not trying to bring a new person up to speed on the entire project and into the ensemble.  Sometimes, things work out.

Rehearsal Report 5/21/06 – eight hour days

May 21, 2006

God, I love eight-hour rehearsals.

I can't wait until I'm a fully professional director, working eight-hour days all the time. It's so rare in this business, especially early in a career, to be able to spend a whole day just doing your work. When everyone has a day job, a typical rehearsal is limited to 3 or 4 hours in the evening — and the rest of the day is spent earning a living doing something else plus sending out resumes to try to land the next gig. With a full day of rehearsal, you can get into a rhythm. It's tremendously fulfilling. A full day doing what you love.

And you get a lot done. We tabletalked in small groups again. Lots of stuff with the King and Gertrude, and those two plus the Ghost talking about the history of those relationships. Our King will be very much the politician, calculating his moves, knowing he did something wrong but also knowing he would do it again. Gertrude has married Claudius more out of a desire to hold on to the past than out of affection — she's doing her best to recreate the harmony she enjoyed while Old Hamlet lived, floating along on the surface and accepting the younger brother as a substitute for the old, until Hamlet finally breaks through and forces her to face this self-deception.

The actor playing Osric came in with a wonderful fully thought-out backstory — "young Osric" grew up at court (the son of a presumed Old Osric), friends with Laertes but of a lower social status, has a crush on Ophelia, is a spy for Fortinbras. I love it when an actor playing a small part really goes for this type of preparation, thinking it through and creating a full world for themselves.

Lots of work with Hamlet and Horatio; the scenes with Marcellus, the scene with the Gravedigger. Some work with Hamlet alone. We missed working Ophelia's mad scene because of a freeway shooting on the 110 that shut down all lanes and prevented Laertes from getting to San Pedro. That's LA theatre for you.

We ended with Ophelia and Hamlet again. The nunnery scene is bottomless — we keep digging and digging, and there's always more to find. More possible interpretations. So many levels to every line it's impossible for the actors to play all of it at once. I'll have to do a full post just on that sometime soon.

Rehearsal Report 5/16/06

May 16, 2006

Because of the crazy schedule, a couple of actor conflicts, and sharing actors with the other show, tonight's rehearsal was short chunks of time with small groups of actors. Tomorrow will be the same way, and Thursday we'll finally be able to get the whole group together for a read-thru.

Most of the Shakespeare that I've directed has been with casts of students — teenagers and college kids. So I'm used to spending lots of time at the table helping the actors come to grips with the language itself. It's an entirely different experience to direct accomplished adult actors who don't need to be taught how to unscramble a complex line or how to look up an unfamiliar word. There's a tiny bit of that kind of thing, but it's much more of a conversation.

Instead, time at the table can be spent discussing circumstances and exploring possible choices for each character. I talked with Ophelia and Polonius and Laertes about their family dynamics. We read through Laertes' departure a few times, each with a different idea about how the family gets along. The actors' first instincts are to make the characters as loving and caring towards each other as possible — that was the first read, and that choice makes them all very sympathetic. For the second read, I asked the actors to explore the opposite choice, that these characters don't get along and have a hard time relating to each other on an emotional level. That wasn't as much fun, but it brought some lines to life in a way the first read missed. We talked some more, and settled in on some choices for the third read. Laertes can be younger than Ophelia; his command for her to reject Hamlet can be an attempt to put on some masculine authority with her, maybe for the first time. The siblings can get along with each other much better than either of them do with their father. Polonius' advice to Laertes can come from a place of genuine concern for his son, while also being a way to avoid a more emotionally open farewell. I told the actors to keep exploring possibilities for the next few days, looking for specific choices to try out in rehearsal.

We had a bit of time with the three Players, and talked about what kind of troupe they might be. The Player Queen and Third Player are played by younger actors; the Player King is a somewhat older actor (he's also playing the Ghost), so we decided that perhaps the young woman in the troupe is his daughter and the young man is his apprentice. The Player King had all sorts of thoughts about the historical style of their performance, and we talked about some possibilities. I also worked a bit with the Player King alone, reading through and talking through the Priam speech.

Starting in small groups like this is turning out to be a blessing. We're able to talk specifics about one group of characters without wasting everyone else's time. Maybe I'll do it this way on my next show regardless.


May 14, 2006

Everybody loves Horatio. He's a solid supporter of Hamlet, he makes the occasional wry comment, he never complains, he's brave without being egotistical, and he's clearly an all-around good guy.

His function in the play is twofold. First, and more obviously, he's Hamlet's confidant. He provides opportunities for Hamlet to talk about what's going on; not everything can be covered in soliloquies. He's always a voice of reason and caution, advising Hamlet against following the ghost and even against accepting Laertes' challenge for the duel. Second, more subtly, Horatio is the counterexample to Laertes. As I've said before, Hamlet is unable to take revenge and unable to decide not to take revenge — either would be a form of accepting change. Laertes is a clear example of someone who would choose to take fiery and swift revenge. Hamlet spends 20 lines (just before the play-within-the-play) praising Horatio for being

…A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks…
…that man
That is not passion's slave…

Horatio, put in Hamlet's situation, would presumably be able to accept his father's death and let go of the (sinful) desire for revenge. Hamlet admires him for this. Much as Hamlet admires the Player for his demonstration of passion, so he admires Horatio for his levelheadedness.

The circumstances around Horatio seem somewhat confused. He's friends with the guards — they go to him first after seeing the Ghost. But he's apparently not a native of Denmark, as Hamlet has to explain the local customs. He's a friend of Hamlet's from the University. But he's also familiar enough with Denmark's politics that he explains the situation with Norway to the guards at Elsinore.

I like the idea that Hamlet is not particularly close friends with Horatio at the top of the play — they knew each other a bit from school. This is in sharp contrast to Hamlet's relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who I think are truly close friends with Hamlet since childhood. Over the course of the play, Hamlet's friendship with Horatio grows even as he stops trusting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

In Act Four, Horatio is apparently in discussion with the Queen going into Ophelia's first mad scene — perhaps the two people in Elsinore who know Hamlet's true purposes are comparing notes? Later, the King sends Horatio to take care of Hamlet after Hamlet's explosion at Laertes at the funeral. Horatio has become a recognized member of the court.

In the aftermath of the duel, Horatio announces his intention to commit suicide. Hamlet stops him, and commands Horatio — the only person left alive who knows the full story — to tell the world what really happened to the royal family of Denmark. It is Horatio who is left to deal with the English Ambassador and with Fortinbras.

Like us, Horatio has become friends with Hamlet over the course of the play. Hamlet has shared secrets with Horatio as he has with us — both the audience and Horatio have a kind of privileged status with regards to Hamlet's journey. So Horatio's sorrow for Hamlet at the end of the play provides the audience with an important way in to the tragedy; we see Hamlet's death through Horatio's eyes, and the impact of the tragedy reaches us through its impact on Horatio.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

May 9, 2006

I directed Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for my MFA thesis three years ago; it's hard to get those two characters out of my head. For that production, my priority was making them three-dimensional, human characters. Balancing Stoppard's brilliant intellectual wordplay with genuine heart. Hamlet in that play is a machine, a trap from which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to escape.

They're not the same characters in Shakespeare, of course. I still want to make them three-dimensional, human characters, but now their context is entirely different. They know why they're at Elsinore, and they remember their friendship with Hamlet. They grew up with him, and a close reading of the text suggests that Hamlet is much closer with these two than he ever was with Horatio. Horatio becomes Hamlet's friend over the course of the play. Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away.

The line that really stood out for me when I first started thinking through this production was Hamlet's line about knowing a hawk from a handsaw. It's at the end of the first conversation he has with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after he's gotten them to admit that they were sent for. As soon as they admit this, Hamlet launches into his "What a piece of work is a man" speech — exposing his unhappiness to his friends without revealing its cause. They tell him about the players, and in the last moments before Polonius enters Hamlet says

Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands, come then. You are welcome. But my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.

GUIL: In what, my dear lord?

HAM: I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

What is Hamlet doing here? Part of the antic disposition is allowing himself to say things that wouldn't otherwise be appropriate, including direct insults to Polonius and the King. Seeming nonsequiters and hidden messages are also common, and this at first glance seems to be one or the other. But now I think Hamlet is almost straightforwardly telling his best friends that he is not mad after all, that he's merely acting mad — as a way to get them on his side against the King. Once he realizes they are reporting to Claudius, he knows he can't tell them the whole truth. But they are still his best friends, and he sees an opportunity to find a couple of allies. Unfortunately for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet then gets caught up in the plotting around the play, and they don't manage to earn his trust before falling into the trap he springs on them.

That's Hamlet's point of view. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern famously don't have a lot to go on in this play. They have no idea that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet. They don't know about the Ghost. At first, they have no reason to doubt that Hamlet is actually suffering from mental illness — and no reason to doubt the King's word that he has sent for them out of concern for Hamlet's well-being. From their point of view, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just trying to help their old friend.

The line that kills me is from Rosencrantz, just after the mousetrap: "My lord, you once did love me." So similar to "I did love you once," "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so," with Ophelia. As with Ophelia, Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away. They are part of the world, part of the change that Claudius represents. Ophelia is linked with Gertrude in Hamlet's mind by virtue of her womanhood; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are linked to the King by their service to him. In trying to deny that change, Hamlet denies his closest friends.


May 8, 2006

Laertes is best understood for his function in the plot — he is an analogue for Hamlet, and the differences between them highlight something Shakespeare wanted to make clear about the Prince. Like Hamlet, Laertes seeks revenge for a murdered father. And like Hamlet, Laertes is killed in his pursuit of revenge. The chief difference between them is the delay — and the fact of this difference is a big part of what makes me believe the delay is central to Shakespeare's whole purpose with the play.

Shakespeare is careful to introduce Laertes in such a way that the audience will remember him after his absence through Acts 2 and 3. The King repeats his name over and over in that first speech, makes a big point of identifying him as the son of Polonius, and immediately invites us to compare Laertes to Hamlet when he grants Laertes' request and denies Hamlet's when they each want permission to leave Denmark.

We soon see Laertes bidding farewell to Ophelia, and cautioning her about her romantic relationship with Hamlet — there seems to be genuine affection between them. His goodbye to and from his father is much more formal and stilted. The siblings seem to get along; the father seems disconnected.

And then Laertes is gone for more than two full Acts. His return is hugely dramatic — literally breaking down the doors at the head of a mob, in full vengeance mode towards the King over the death of Polonius. This is the very image of what Hamlet can't get himself to be — the headstrong revenger, loyal to his father, hell-bent on avenging his father's murder at any cost. The King skillfully slows Laertes down, and the madness of Ophelia takes the immediate wind out of his sails. Ophelia's suicide strengthens his resolve even further, and Claudius manages to turn him against Hamlet — the true enemy who murdered Laertes' father in cold blood. It is Laertes who suggests the use of poison.

At Ophelia's funeral, Laertes argues with the priest over the reduced ceremonies (suicide being a sin), then jumps in Ophelia's grave and demands to be buried with her. Hamlet reveals himself at that, and the two revengers scuffle and have to be pulled apart.

That very night, the plan that Laertes made with the King is put into action. Laertes has an "unbated" sword — the tip is sharp, not blunted for safe fencing (and it's poisoned as well). Hamlet quickly proves the better fencer, so Laertes cheats, hitting Hamlet between rounds. In the ensuing fight, Hamlet manages to switch swords and wound Laertes. When the Queen dies after drinking the poison intended for Hamlet, the dying Laertes has a change of heart. He reveals himself and the King, then asks Hamlet to exchange forgiveness with him before succumbing to his own poison.

Laertes is energetic, bold, and passionate, and wants to do the right thing. He is somewhat given to making exaggerated or even melodramatic statements; perhaps this is due to his youth. He's clearly not the intellectual and philosophical giant that Hamlet is, but perhaps this has something to do with what allows him to be the man of action that Hamlet is not. The audience should sympathize with Laertes' desire for revenge, and should on some level be aware of the parallel with Hamlet. The way Laertes repents at the end makes him that much more sympathetic.

In some ways, the story of Laertes might be indicative of what Revenge Tragedy was all about before Shakespeare used Hamlet to transcend it.