Taking over 10 floors of the Library of Birmingham, director Daniel Tyler’s ‘Hamlets’ was a fully immersive Shakespeare experience that offered multiple interpretations of the Bard’s most iconic character

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Walking towards the impressive Library of Birmingham I have no idea what to expect of Hamlets. Everyone has their favourite Hamlet, one that stays in their memory brighter than any other. But the aim of this production is to explore the many thousands of interpretations and incorporate them into one.

Upon arrival, we are greeted by The Archivists who will accompany us through our exploration of Hamlet. In reception there is a flutter of activity. People in white hazmat suits investigate a body on the floor. A chilling foresight of what is to come?

From the start, the audience is involved, answering questions about their relationship with Hamlet. Access granted, we are led by The Archivists to the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room on the top floor of the Library. Full of artefacts and books about Shakespeare, it’s the perfect place to be introduced to the world of Hamlet.

The Archivists lead the group through each scene via long corridors and dark stairwells; it’s almost as if we are exploring Elsinore ourselves. We find ourselves outside on the chilly night in the serene Secret Garden, high above the Birmingham life going on below us. The cold evening adds to the atmosphere of meeting the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

There are nine interpretations of Hamlet present, taking it in turns to shine before coming together to speak as one at particular points of the text. The absence of a stage and being able to interact with the Hamlets mean I feel connected to it all in a way I’ve never experienced before.

Exploring the Library’s vast floors, my highlight of the journey is being able to wander around the Hamlets, watching each one deal with their descents into madness in different ways. Seeing the Hamlets both alone and with members of the court shows a raw side to the play and the character. It really adds to Hamlet’s madness by seeing so many of them running around the room – a glimpse into what could have been going on in his mind.

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

We are led to a large room where we can take our time to walk around 18 different ‘To Be or Not To Be’ interpretations. As well as the nine Hamlets we’ve been following throughout the night, we can view pieces of art, text and visual interpretations – and also perform our own version. Walking from Hamlet to Hamlet feel I’m intruding on the most personal and private thoughts of the tortured prince. Each performance is powerful – it really feels as though you understand Hamlet’s pain.

As we continue throughout the Archives we are led down more dark stairwells by The Archivists, passing by the players performing The Mousetrap, Polonius’ death at the hand of Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness and eventual drowning. We find ourselves in the children’s room, confronted by a grave made out of books. There is even an archive box referring to Disney’s The Lion King, a reminder of Hamlet’s widespread influence.

We are ushered by The Archivists towards the final scene – a sword fight, with all nine Hamlets effortlessly changing places. For me, it highlights just how well rehearsed and in sync the individual players are. All nine have done a fantastic job, each one delivering a new take on an iconic role.

The Birmingham Young Rep and Hôtel Teatro Theatre groups have been superb, gelling as comfortably as if they had been acting together for years. Well-designed costumes enhance the sense of each character’s different era and culture. A special mention should go to Michael Barry for changing my perception of the character of Polonius. I’ve always imagined Polonius as an old fuddy duddy, but Michael portrays him as a mild mannered, loving father.

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

“My inspiration came from the fact that Shakespeare – and Hamlet – is adopted around the world and is re-interpreted in so many ways it can make you dizzy,” says director Daniel Tyler.

“Those of us who love and work with the Bard’s plays – especially the most famous ones – can often feel weighed down by production histories and ‘great’ or ‘landmark’ versions. Hamlets addresses this by making this history the very centre of the performance.

“Also, I’m hooked on the feeling I get when people who think Shakespeare ‘isn’t for them’ or ‘is too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ are having a great time engaging with a contemporary version of one of his plays.”

Hamlets ran at the Library of Birmingham from 17-21 March 2015

Images by Emma Wheatley

“Batman is Hamlet!” In an exclusive interview extra, Kill Shakespeare co-creator Anthony Del Col takes us deeper inside the world of his Bard-inspired comics series

Portraits by Piper Williams, Artwork by Andy Belanger.

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Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

“I liked Othello for the longest time, not only because of Iago. I’m drawn towards his tragedies rather than his comedies for the most part and Othello was the one play amongst the great tragedies that… It didn’t introduce any magic or fantasy, it’s just pure human emotion. That’s what I really loved about it.”

And now?
“Having gone through this – the multiple generations of the comic, the stage show, maybe TV and video games in the future – Hamlet is just coming out more and more as my favourite. Just because he is the most fascinating character I have ever read or ever experienced, consumed, and written for. The more chance I have to see it performed, read it, study it, the more fascinated I become with that character and hence with the play. People often say that Batman is Hamlet – you know, someone who lost a family member and is on a quest for revenge and is very conflicted about what he should do and whether life’s worth living.”

Cover Volume 2 by Andy Belanger

Are there any characters that you haven’t touched in Kill Shakespeare yet that you’d like to write for?
“Oh my god. yes! There are so many. The first one who jumps out is King Lear. I can’t wait to jump into King Lear. Beatrice and Benedick are the two others that I really desperately want to jump into, I just love those two and can’t wait to get them into our universe. Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. There are a lot of the comedy characters that we haven’t had much opportunity to introduce yet, so I’m really looking forward to those.”

Are there any Early Modern writers you’re inspired by outside of Shakespeare?
“Cervantes plays a big role in all of the stories; my favourite novel of all time is Don Quixote. I like to think there’s a bit of ‘tilting at windmills’ in every story. Hamlet’s story in the original arc of Kill Shakespeare, there are shades of Quixote in there, with Hamlet being Quixote himself. And of course Falstaff would make the most excellent Sancho Panza.

“We do reference Marlowe. There’s a very… It’s a huge Easter egg, so anyone that can find it I applaud them for it.”

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Do you have a favourite Shakespeare quotation? Something that resonates with you more than everything else?
“It’s going to sound kind of cheesy, but ‘to thine own self be true’. Not the whole speech, but just that actual line. On a comedic level ‘methinks he doth protest too much’, [modern figure of speech that springs from Hamlet’s ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’] that’s the ultimate quote that you can use in pretty much every single situation, so that’s the one I’ll quote the most. But ‘to thine own self be true’ is the one that I’ll try to quote to myself every now and then to remind myself who I should be.”

Is there a moment on the Kill Shakespeare journey that stands out as particularly memorable?
“There was the first time we had someone cosplay our version of these characters. That was amazing. We had people cosplaying as Richard III and Lady Macbeth.

Richard III by Andy Belanger

“Receiving a personal note from Sir Tom Stoppard was amazing. I have that right above my desk and I look at that on a daily basis and just pinch myself. Getting a mention on the Colbert Report here in the US and Canada was immensely gratifying.

“I guess just seeing that first issue hit the newsstands, you know, hit the comic book shops, and the first book showing up at Barnes and Noble and Waterstones. There’s no better feeling than walking into a book store and seeing something you’ve created right there.”

If you could do a crossover with Kill Shakespeare and another comic book series what would it be?
Fables would be the most natural one. It would be great to be able to collaborate on something with Bill Willingham. Mike Carey’s The Unwritten is another possibility, we could weave that in really naturally. We have the magical elements so we could pop into the DC or the Marvel universes. I mean, a crossover with Thor would be interesting because Thor itself is very Shakespearean, so it’d be great to see King Lear meets Thor.”

Find out more about about Anthony Del Col and Kill Shakespeare in the latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

“We’re all excavators in some way…” In this exclusive interview, Filter Theatre’s Oliver Dimsdale and Poppy Miller tell us about the formative experiences and bold choices that led to their their radical take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Images courtesy of Farrows Creative, Bristol.

image by farrows creative
Filter Theatre’s maverick style puts sound and music at the centre of all their productions, and their interpretations of Shakespeare are no exception. Artistic Director and founding member Oliver Dimsdale played the title role in their recent production of Macbeth. He and Poppy Miller (Lady Macbeth) both performed Shakespeare for the first time in their early teens, and it was then that they fell in love with the rhythms and imagery of his lines. We met them to discuss staging Shakespeare and their relationships with the Bard.

What was your earliest experience of Shakespeare, and what did you think of it at the time?

Oliver: “Mine was at my secondary school when I was about 13 years old. I auditioned to be in the lower school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I got the part of Puck. Until then I’d never really keyed in to Shakespeare; I’d seen a couple of Shakespeare shows and it hadn’t really hit me. Up until that point I’d never been able to commit to memory text like it. Puck especially has wonderful verse and I just loved the rhythm. I had a fairly bad stammer when I was younger and it gave me a very real voice on stage. That’s my first memory of Shakespeare: a means by which to express myself through magnificent verse.”

Poppy: “My dad, who died 25 years ago, was a very erudite man. He was a teacher and used to do lots of amateur dramatics at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, where I grew up. I used to go and watch him play big parts and then I started getting involved as well. I auditioned to play Miranda when I was 14 and ended up doing the play with my dad which was amazing. I’ve got some photographs of us doing that together. I have very magical and special memories of that because it was my first experience of real theatres and people being passionate about Shakespeare.”

image by farrows creative

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

Poppy: “I’m quite keen on The Tempest. I think that, as with Macbeth, some of the speeches are just jaw-dropping.”

Oliver:King Lear is a big one for me. It probably ties into having done it for GCSE. I think I was starting to get into the possibilities and the power of Shakespeare and perhaps it’s a hangover from that. I’ve seen a couple of productions of it as well that have transported me. It’s thrillingly dark and horrendous.”

Filter Theatre produces truly unique adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How do you develop from the play texts to these productions?

Poppy: “A very initial development process is to whack a load of paper on the walls and write on it what we love about the play, what we’re afraid about making a mess of or doing in a dull way – we get all our ideas and fears out straight away. Then we can really start to focus on core elements, so with Macbeth it would be the Weird Sisters, or the banquet, or the heath.

“Ideas of sound are never far from the mix. Tom Haines, the sound designer and composer, built many of the things we play in this production, so we had a huge pallet to work with.

“We’re quite bold with the filleting of the play. We had a dramaturg this time: experienced Shakespeare scholar and director Simon Reade, and he was very helpful. We’d go ‘What about sounds in this play?’ and he’d come back the next day with a full list of all the references to sound.”

image by farrows creative

Oliver: “With new works we tend to focus on narrative first, though sound still plays an important role. But with Shakespeare we have the story there already, so we feel as if we have a good head start and can just crack on with finding ways we can deconstruct and put together.”

How did you prepare for your roles?

Poppy: “In my experience of playing a Shakespeare role over a long period, you find out more every week, and you can only do that by learning it and then trying to put yourself out of the picture. Inevitably your actor’s worries come up – I think we’re still asking ourselves questions now because there are so many possibilities and ways of playing it. In this production we’ve chosen proximity at places where you wouldn’t normally have it; for example, the only time our characters are intimate is in front of loads of other people in quite a grotesque way, whereas a lot of productions would have a much more…”

Oliver: “Sexual charge.”

Poppy: “Yes – he comes to the castle and they consume their ambition, and that’s almost better than the end itself.

“We’ve also stylised the movement a little bit, so there are always questions. But that’s good, I think. You just have to commit to the version you’re giving. Like with all great Shakespeare parts you feel a weight of something, which is ‘I’m going to be rubbish,’ basically. But once you’re doing it I think you have a direct connection with the character.”

image by farrows creative

Are there any scenes or speeches when you feel that pressure most strongly, or any you particularly enjoy playing?

Poppy: “I have always really liked that scene after the murders, with the two of them. I think it’s just so brilliantly written, and the way Shakespeare’s written his half- and quarter-lines is just amazing dialogue with, when Macbeth talks about sleep, some of the most beautiful but domestic images. He’s talking about a jumper that’s fraying – or that’s how I see it!

“I think the summoning the spirits speech is great when you’re doing it, but it’s always had a whiff of failure about it for me. I did a really interesting workshop with an amazing Russian director – I’m not going to name any names. Myself and a lot of other actors were at the RSC and had been there about six months. And every time any of us stood up as Lady Macbeth, we’d breathe in and he’d go, ‘Niet.’ Just the way you breathed in wasn’t right! But I think you’ve got to remember it’s a woman. It’s a woman who’s in a very isolated place, who has a lot of capabilities but not the means to get what she wants, and all these things we can identify with.

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Some people might say your productions are not how Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed. What would you say to them?

Oliver: “The first thing I’d say to that is that no one actually knows what he intended, unless we can go back in time and speak to him. Basically we’re all excavators in some way. There are many brilliant scholars who keep on unearthing little titbits of information that might lead us a little bit closer to how it would have been done at the time, but I think a piece of art should keep on creating and moving.

“I often go to the Globe, and I love it there – knowing the actors can see whites of the eyes of the audience in broad daylight – where many of the clothes have been made in the original way and the jigs at the end are magnificent. It’s absolutely got a very strong place in our telling of Shakespeare stories now.

And I think at the same time, there can be many more braver productions than we dare to do, that have just as much of a right to be around. So I think the so-called Shakespeare purists, whatever that means, whoever they are, whatever their purpose is, are perhaps barking up the wrong tree, because there are many shapes and forms Shakespeare can take.”

image by farrows creative

Poppy: “I think the thing to say about all of us in this company is that we do really, really love Shakespeare. Sometime people misunderstand our approach; they think it’s not possible to improve on Shakespeare. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re inspired by, and every word of our Macbeth is, Shakespeare.”

Read more about Filter Theatre’s Macbeth in Issue 5 of Shakespeare Magazine.

Issue Six of Shakespeare Magazine is out now! Featuring five exciting, inspiring and controversial exclusive Shakespeare interviews

Issue 6 Cover

The latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine features a feast of informative, inspiring and sometimes incendiary Shakespeare interviews.

Speaking the speech are: actor, author and linguist Ben Crystal; novelist Andrea Chapin; UK comedian Sara Pascoe; Kill Shakespeare co-creator Anthony Del Col; and visionary actor-educator Ben Walden (interviewed by Top Teacher Phil Beadle).

Also this issue: our US Staff Writer nabs a part in her ambitious college production The Taming of the Shrew, and we take a fresh and surprising look at Shakespeare’s most legendary speech, “To be or not to be” from Hamlet.

Plus! We’re giving away 20 brilliant Shakespeare books!

Go here to read the latest issue completely free.