Fri 12 Mar 2010
This section of the Pigeon Creek actor blog is brought to you by Scott Lange. I’m here today to talk to you about the role of Hamlet.
Scratch that. I’m here to talk to you today about my opinions and thoughts about Hamlet. All in all, I do not actually think there can be one definitive perspective on the Danish prince.
Let’s start by actually looking at the size of Hamlet. The role is immense. He is onstage for eleven of the play’s seventeen scenes, and speaks over a third of the play’s lines. Please don’t think I’m complaining here, I welcome the challenge. But so have many other actors. Looking through a list of people that have played the role in the past, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the heavy hitters. Here is a sample:
David Tennant, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Christopher Plummer, Kevine Kline, Jonathan Pryce, Ian McKellen, Richard Burton, Lawrence Olivier, John Barrymore, John Gielgud, and Derek Jacobi. That’s not even counting the number of productions on television, in movies, or on stage that haven’t been seen by as wide of an audience. Also remember all the productions that no one alive has seen, starring Richard Burbage (the original Hamlet) for example. It’s an intimidating list.
When I was first cast in the role, I immediately forged an obsession about who Hamlet was, based on what previous productions had done with it. There are so many questions about the character, and the play in general. I felt I needed a helping hand, some sort of boost to get me started. In my mind, the role was almost too large to battle without some weapons.
Is Hamlet’s madness real or feigned? Does he really love Ophelia, or is she merely a pawn in the master plan? Why was Claudius named the king when Hamlet should have been next in line for the throne? What is the cause of Hamlet’s melancholy? Is it really because of the death of his father and mother’s overhasty marriage? Is the Ghost of his father sent from heaven or hell? All these questions need answers. For a short while, I was on a quest to discover the answers from those that have already traveled the journey. Well, that plan failed.
I don’t mean that those questions are unanswerable, or that I’m totally lost in my character development. What I’m suggesting is that I cannot find the answers from someone else. I watched a lot of video, and read quite a bit of analysis. I found, in most cases, I either could not figure out what the actors’ motivations were, or I didn’t like what they had decided. Ultimately I have to figure this out myself.
One specific part of my “who is Hamlet” obsession centers around whether Hamlet can be likable. I think the play Hamlet is an amazing work of literature, the characters (especially the title character) are extremely complex and detail. I love the play, and the character, but if he was fully alive, embodied and living next door to me, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with him. He’s moody, spiteful, indecisive, whining, at times violent, cruel, “proud, revengeful, and ambitious.” I was concerned about making a Hamlet who is all of those things, but also likeable and relatable. But I couldn’t find much of a reason for audiences to admire him. I brought this point up to my director and fellow actors in a rehearsal last week. We discussed that the reason that audiences relate to Hamlet is that he is a flawed man, dealing with extraordinary circumstances, faring as best he can in the only way he knows how. Hamlet as anti-hero.
This conversation brought two things to light for me. First of all, I’m not really alone in my quest. I have a director and ten other actors to help me. I may be portraying the title character, but it doesn’t matter whether I’m amazing or not, I need to have a cast with me on stage, and a director behind me that I trust completely. I am extraordinarily blessed to say that this is absolutely the case here. Really this is what Pigeon Creek is all about, creating an ensemble and exploring a play, discovering what we can get out of it to share with the audience. There is no one actor that is more important than the group. Everything I do must relate to the other characters on stage. This gives me visions of myself lurching around the stage, screaming my head off, while my fellow cast members stare at me in horror. There is no room for me to be a primadonna or allow my ego to get ahead of me. One for all and all for one. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Also, our talk made me finally realize why it is that we are so infatuated with this character. He is us. Shakespeare shows us this all along. We like Hamlet because we can see ourselves in him. He may not be very nice, but he opens his heart and soul to us. He acts rashly, but how many times during the day would we love to tell people exactly what we think of them. He is frustrated with his situation, angry at the world, and cannot stop his brain from chewing on itself. I know I’ve had some sleepless nights where I’ve felt the exact same thing. It’s true that the audience may not like the character, disapprove of what he does and says, but cannot help but relate to him and sympathize with his struggle.
This also explains why my search through the past for the perfect Hamlet failed. It is impossible for me to be Kevin Kline, Lawrence Olivier, or even David Tennant. The Hamlet that I play has to be MY Hamlet. I need to glean from my own personal experiences to create who Hamlet really is. Shakespeare gives us clues to this. Hamlet tells the players: “hold the mirror up to nature;” and shows Gertrude a glass so that “she may see the inmost part of you.” That has to be me on stage, a mirror to my own nature, show the audience the inmost part of myself. And most importantly: “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night, the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” As long as I trust myself, my instincts, my company, and my audience, flights of angels will sing us to our rest. And now, for silence.