A Little Night Hamlet



Back in May I had the good fortune to perform in Hamlet. While all others played one role, a fellow actor and I had the honor of playing “everybody else.” I was Barnardo, The Player Queen, First Gravedigger, and Osric.

There was a lot that was unusual about this performance. Unusual, that is, if you’re theatre-going experiences have been limited to mostly high-budget, indoor, full length, late evening performances. This play began at 6pm in an outdoor amphitheatre, no set, minimal props, costumes out of the actors’ closets, was a one-night-only event, and ran no more than one hour and forty minutes, sans intermission.

That’s right. We did Hamlet in less than 100 minutes. How? We cut. A lot. Now let’s not turn this into a discussion of the blasphemies of cutting so much text out of a play or how it’s not the play as Shakespeare intended. That’s not what I want you to take away from my telling of my experience.

The play was, among other things, lots of fun. Both for the actors (all eleven of us) and for the audience — of which there were a few hundred. As you may have surmised, we took a very bare-essentials approach to the play. It moved very quickly. The story not only moved quickly because of the cuts, but we aimed for a fairly fast pace as well. Our goal was to tell a good story before the sun set. I think we did that much.

It really brought to my attention that there isn’t a whole lot that is necessary for good theatre. Theatrical philosophy texts often repeat the fact that theatre consists of at least a space, a performer and a spectator. We had no fancy proscenium to hide behind. We were outdoors. No electrical lights, we used the sun. No sound system, but we had a guitarist and the chiming of a nearby clock tower. No microphones. The costumes consisted of articles of clothing in our closets. Nothing fancy, just something to suggest the character.

And it worked! If the story is good (and it is) why confound the play with bells and whistles? I talked with some audience members after the show, many of whom were actors too, and were very impressed with what they had just seen. I don’t think most of the people there really expected a bare-bones production of a heavily reduced script in an outdoor daylit location to be as good as it was. I don’t think I expected it either, to be quite frank. Having all talented actors was a a great bonus and we all worked hard, but we didn’t know what the outcome would be.

I had done a fairly bare-bones production outdoors before, but we had digital sound system for playing music, as well as an intermission. We didn’t have a whole lot, but it felt much less of a bare-essentials type of set up.

After this Hamlet, both actors and audience learned a great deal about what theatre is and what it needs and more about what it doesn’t need. We take for granted sometimes the things we have available to us and what is really most important when producing art.

Even so, I would still prefer to have a dressing room.

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5 comments

  1. JM Aug 25, 2009

    WoW! I edited a version down to 2 hrs.for an outdoor festival and I thought I pushed it about as far as I could (without literally weeping over some of the cuts I had to make). They started in daylight and ended in darkness (with lights) but the deadline was the beginning of a nearby nightly fireworks display. It’s a shame I couldn’t count on the punctuality of the 1/2 mile or so removed pyro-techies, otherwise it might have been a nice addition to Fortinbras’ closer-”Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

    But I believe you when you say it worked. Once again we return to the text. I’ve had some similar first hand acting experiences with little else to rely on but the text. And it’s so true, what you say about what it needs and what it doesn’t need. Banish the rococo! One of my heroes, Harley Granville-Barker, said we wouldn’t know real Shakespeare until we took it completely out of the hands of the scenic designer. (I paraphrase but that’s essentially the sentiment)

    Looks like you experienced something of what he tried to make general practice nearly 80 years ago. I wish more had listened to him. I think there’d be more appreciation for the Bard–AND more venues for the Journeyman as well.

  2. Gedaly Aug 26, 2009

    If only you could have timed that with the fireworks! Could’ve been great. We timed ours to a nearby clock tower chiming. As soon as the clock sounded we began, and an hour later we hear “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go…” GONG! GONG! GONG! …. I was surprised that we were running on time for that moment. It was very cool.

    I’m glad I wasn’t the one who made the cut. I helped clean it up and found more places to nip and tuck, I don’t envy whoever originally took the 4000 lines of text to less than half. It probably also helped that most of our audience was a theatre-going and theatre-doing crowd. They knew what was going on even if the details weren’t all there.

    Hehe, scenic designer. How true. I need to go back and read more Harley Granville-Barker. Many of the things he has to say are very quotable. I love to borrow his words and use them for teaching/directing/vocal coaching. One I really like is something to the effect of (pardon my paraphrasing), “There isn’t one way to speak Shakespeare’s verse, he didn’t have one way of writing it.”

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