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By Tom Fulton
Sarah Bernhardt, while playing Hamlet, was once quoted as saying: "Hamlet is really very simple to understand." Whether or not the interviewer ever pursued her meaning, history doesn’t say. What history does record, however, are thousands of very complicated Hamlets that were impossible to understand. Ms Bernhardt’s instinct is refreshing. And it stands before each of us, who have sought to make sense of Shakespeare's’ play, as a beacon of light in the dark. Our job seems to always come down to this: strip away the layers and layers of complexity and find the simplest, clearest, most vital human explanation.
What good is a complicated play? The real challenge is to find a approach that is straightforward and unfettered – completely clear. In simplicity there is power. Less is always more. But what path do we take to make this discovery?
On the surface, it would be tempting to start interpreting the play by trying to illuminate a single concept, pouring all the play's resources through that funnel. From the start, we would have a single idea directing the movement of our work. The trouble is, of course, that instead of discovering what drives the play, we will have to define it before rehearsal begins, requiring a kind of reverse engineering where we must work backwards to prove a single theory; a very complicated and complex challenge that more often than not spells disaster.
For example, let’s say that we begin with the common premise that Hamlet ultimately seeks oblivion and release from the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ – by committing suicide – that "he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin." That would be a premise! Except that now, every action, every inflection, every moment I direct will be slightly skewed to illuminate this idea. Other contradictory actions that may discovered in rehearsal are moments of high anxiety that will have to be quickly ignored in order not to confuse the outcome. I am predisposed to push each scene to harmonize with my mandate and ask, "What words and actions in the play can prove Hamlet is suicidal?
Once there was a man named Norman K*, who bought a rare Monet at auction. Since he had been robbed once before, he arrived at a scheme that would protect the painting from any future thefts. When he arrived home, he took a can of white oil paint and a nice trim brush and painted across his newly purchased treasure: "This painting belongs to Norm K*.
Concepts tend to announce ownership, but not necessarily reveal the play. They prevent creative exploration. They can easily warp a play to suit an ego.
All plays, and perhaps Hamlet above all, are ultimately diminished by conceptualization. The real challenge is to open your heart and the hearts of your cast to discovery. A director's job is to seek the simplest dramatic line – the simplest human truth. And in that, we uncover by dissecting the action, the words and the theme of the play. In the end, the play will define itself through us - it will be remade as if for the first time, passing through the landscape of our collective imagination.
Directors should be gardeners. The need to look for rich loam, good drainage, plenty of sun. The prize mum is a long way away – we can't think about it in the beginning. So, it’s more fruitful to concentrate on the length and depths of the rows and what seed is planted where. If you map out a proper garden, placing complementary plants in juxtaposition with each other, provide plenty of water and sunlight, and weed it daily, the prize mum is only a single morning away. You don't pull on it to make it grow, it just appears. A simple, rising up out of the ground and opening to the world. All in it's own time.
Theatre is in love with the artificial bloom. How it strains to paste silk petals onto pretty plays! It is wasted a exercise. The audience knows a real garden when it sees one. It yearns to walk along its paths and relax on a shady bench. But they squirm with uncertainty or stare unmoved or giggle at sunflowers made of crepe and straw. The human heart is rich with the moist earth of life - it's bloom is alive with color and simplicity. It is our mission as artists of the theatre to harvest that abundance.
We need answers to the simple questions, the gardener's questions - the ones that take us enrich the earth of our imaginiations, taking us closer to the truth seed by seed.
Here is just one little example of how little answers inform the larger scene. We won't even deal with Hamlet yet, just the first scene in Hamlet. At first glance Act I, Scene 1 seems to be mere exposition, explanations with not much action. As Shakspeare wrote it, the scene unfolds as follows:
SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle. FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Long live the king!
You come most carefully upon your hour.
'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
"It's midight?" "It's bitter cold?" "Are they wearing cloaks?" "How far can they see?" "What kind of light is available?" "Is there a brazier?" "Fransisco is on watch?" "Bernardo is coming to releive him?" "Why does Bernardo shout 'who's there?!' if he is not yet on guard?" (These are the dumb questions. The ones which fertilize the garden of the play. The big questions answer themselves after the seemingly inconsequential answers are found. )
Let's see . . . Fransisco stands watch, alone in a bitterly cold storm. Bernardo enters to replace him, bundled against the cold. Suddenly he shouts!
Why is that? Wouldn't it be more logical for the man on watch to demand who's there - not the man who is coming to relieve him? Shakespeare chooses to have the arriving soldier, Barnardo, not yet on duty, fully aware of who he is coming to relieve suddenly shout, "Who's there?"
It is the first line of the play and already we are in a conundrum. This is the first stroke of playwright's pen. Is it on purpose? Let's assume so.
As you read on, we find Bernardo is deathly afraid - he is frightened for his life!
What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
For two nights, while on watch, a ghost has appeared to him, pale, glaring, dressed in armor - the very image of the dead king. Is there any reason for him to assume it won't appear again tonight? What does this suggest about the way Bernardo approaches the parapet? It certainly suggests something powerful about how Bernardo should manage his first line.
This is a gift from Shakespeare to the actor playing Bernardo. It isn't the blocking the matters, it's the way he walks for his life to the watch - how he enters with caution and ghostly expectation. It makes us realize right away that without belief in the ghost, the play is not possible. The presence of the ghost must be incontrovertible. The ghost must be a palpable thing - not merely a figment of Hamlet's imagination.
Shakespeare is very careful to give Hamlet three reliable witnesses. It's never the ghost's actuality that is in doubt, it is its true identity and intentions. Without the ghost, the play as we know it, would end after the Too Too Solid Flesh soliloquy..
"but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue."
At that point, there is nothing left for Hamlet to say or do, but pine away. But as fortune would have it, at that very low point in Hamlet's life, Horatio enters with the news. "I saw your father's ghost." None of this would work without Bernardo's complete belief and ultimate terror of the apparition. "Who's there?" speaks volumes about the state of mind in Denmark - about the mood of the play - about the kind of story we are about to witness.
And, it poses some tricky staging problems - that when we got them solved created a wonderful opening scene.
The first problem with "Who's there?" is obvious. Fransisco must not be clearly visible to Barnardo. Also, something about Fransisco's movement must be unearthly so that Barnardo's already active imagination can be given a rousing. In addition to this problem, we have to deal with the cold - and create an atmosphere that is wholly inhuman - a place where life and death seem to hover uncertainly - a kind of neutral zone.
The playwright has provided the following given circumstances:
- bitter cold
- single soldiers on watch
- a ghost has been here
- Fransisco and Bernardo know each other
- after a few words, Fransisco leaves.
(This last piece of information is also telling. It clearly implies Fransisco knows nothing of the ghost - and that he has not been let in on the secret. Barnardo has kept it from him. If Fransisco knew anything of the ghost, he would probably stay - for who could be so incurious to ignore a chance to experience life from beyond the grave? If it frightened him so that he did not want to say, he would surely have commented on it. And last of all, Bernardo would have asked if he had seen the ghost, not simply "Have you had a quiet watch?")
No concept forcing us one way or another. Just the challenge of trying to pull together these five or six vital strings to bring the play to life - to create a visual, musical, as well as emotional illusion of this bizarre and dark world.
The answer, as always, is in the wants.
Fransisco has been on watch several hours in the bitter cold. What would he want? Simple - fire, warmth - brandy, a blanket, a thick cape, something to cover his ears. If he wears a metal helmet, it could freeze to his flesh. How does Fransisco keep warm? The fire solved several problems immediately. We need a brazier, the prop man was told, one that can contain the fire, but which also spreads light across the stage. If we have a fire, we have a place for Fransisco to keep warm. We also have a flickering light source that can cast an eerie shadow. If Fransisco stands in front of the brazier at the right moment, we might be able to contrive to have his shadow fall on Barnardo as he climbs the steps.
If the curtain were to rise on Fransisco huddled in front of the fire; a freezing wind - a sea wind (Elsinor sits directly on the sea) - perhaps the sound of waves, we could establish immediately the extent of the cold and its unfitness for human habitation - especially if the fire seemed to do little to warm Fransisco no matter how desperately he huddled against the flame. Then he could get up to relieve himself, disappear behind the flame as Barnardo starts his cautious climb up the steps. At pre-established moment, Fransisco would step in front of the flames, casting his flickering shadow over the huddled form of Barnardo.
At the moment the shadow hits Barnardo, he nearly screams out "Who's There!". Fransisco reacts accordingly, he scrambles for his own halyard and shouts "Nay! Answer me!" The two are panting with fear, one because for an instant he thought the shadow of death was at his throat, the other out of panic at the sudden voice in the night. For a moment, we feel they will hurl themselves at each other.
Then recognition dawns and Fransisco rather sheeplishly asks; "Barnardo?" and Barnardo answers; "He." Then the actor playing Fransico became more than a little annoyed at Barnardos unwarranted shouting and he spits out angrily: "You come most carefully upon your hour!" Confirming, for our company at least, that Barnardo has done something out of the ordinary - and which teases us, the audience, that tonight things are not as they should be.
The play begins.
copyright (c) 1993 by Tom Fulton