If you were one of those lucky enough to get a ticket, director Kenneth Branagh’s massively over-subscribed RADA Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston was all about the “intimacy and intensity” of acting craft at its finest, writes Maddy Fry

1504262904wpdm_9
Photos by Johan Persson

I’ve often found it comforting that most of Tom Hiddleston’s alter-egos seem incapable of making good choices. Whether it’s the PTSD-inspired alcoholism of Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea or the Shakespearean sibling angst of the Marvel villain Loki, most of his characters are dogged by despair and failure.

Even the nefarious Prince Hal of The Hollow Crown and the enigmatic Jonathan Pine at the centre of The Night Manager go through considerable travails before fulfilling their true purpose. It seemed apt that director Kenneth Branagh described the Prince of Denmark, that great monument to unfulfilled ambition, as “the role he was born to play.”

For any devotee of Hiddleston, the chance to see him as Hamlet in a tiny central London theatre, nestled within the walls of his old drama school, felt akin to seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club – the sense of a colossal talent scaled down while losing none of its potency. The result was little short of magical.

1504262934wpdm_1
Up close and personal in RADA’s 160-seat auditorium, the play opened with Hamlet sitting in near-darkness at the piano, crooning out a low wolf-howl of defeat.

“And will he not come again?” our hero moaned, lamenting the absence of his father via the heart-wrenching cadence of “No, no he is dead. Go to thy deathbed…”

Hamlet’s alienation and sense of betrayal over his mother’s hasty remarriage was, particularly for those in the front row, frighteningly visceral, made manifest through kicking and screaming, spit, sweat and tears. In turn, Hiddleston masterfully depicted Hamlet’s inability to be what those around him needed – supportive, vengeful, loving, or even just consistent.

1504262794wpdm_4
Much has been made of how HiddleHamlet’s madness was undoubtedly feigned; yet the production’s great strength was the ease with which he switched to an all-too-real malice and vindictiveness. His brushing aside of Ophelia (Kathryn Wilder), triggering her fatal sense of abandonment, combined with his shrugging off the deaths of his informant friends, were shocking in their callousness.

Yet one couldn’t shake the feeling that the derangement and loss of control in Hamlet’s eyes after murdering Polonius (Sean Foley) was genuine. The final duel resulting in the Prince’s death, barely two feet from my seat, was no less agonising for its portrayal of one man imprisoned by grief, with its destructive effects spiralling outwards.

The threat of military conquest by Norway always hung in the foreground, but more than anything this Hamlet was about bereavement and family breakdown – the torment caused by our relatives moving on, even if we can’t, and robbing us of any space to heal. Proof, as though it were needed, that Shakespeare speaks to us for the moment we find ourselves in. Few plays have left me waking up sobbing the next day, but the rage, remorse and anguish on display still resonated, to the refrain throughout of “Go to thy deathbed…”

1504262853wpdm_7
Yet on the night, for those in attendance it was three hours of uncomplicated happiness. Watching Hiddleston seamlessly recite ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ right in front of me was enough to make me feel thankful for my pulse. As much as I loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 turn at the Barbican, it couldn’t rival RADA’s Hamlet for intimacy and intensity of craftsmanship.

This performance of Hamlet took place on 20 September 2017 at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London

Actor Norman Bowman has performed alongside Jude Law in Henry V, played Ross in Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and, most recently, was the eye-gouging Duke of Cornwall in Talawa Theatre’s King Lear… That’s why we’re asking him Six Questions about Shakespeare

What is the most recent play or area of Shakespeare you’ve worked on, and what did you get from it?

“The last area of Shakespeare was King Lear which was a year ago now. As a quick diversion, as I’ve got so much time off in my show, [Norman is playing Pat Denning in the West End musical 42nd Street] I’ve been  refreshing my memory of some of the monologues I’ve learnt over the years. I have to go up and down the stairs just to make a quick change and go back on stage and it’s so monotonous, so I’m going back over all those monologues. Just on the stairs, mind you, not on stage! On the stage I’m focused – I’m Pat Denning, America, 1930s. It’s because I miss it. It has been a year and, certainly with Shakespeare, you never want to stop learning because there’s so much to unearth.

1214072
Photo: Faye Thomas

“When I finish, I’m almost slightly relieved because it does take a lot out of you. These jobs are three months at a time, they’re arduous, you know. They’re like triathlons! The last role I played wasn’t a nice guy [The Duke of Cornwall in King Lear], but I love it, it’s great. I love the antithesis. He died an hour before the end of the piece, so I did get big breaks, but what you do is measure your energy appropriately – if you have got an hour off towards the end, it doesn’t make what you do any less dense, or full on. It was a great one to be able to do. I never thought I’d do Lear as a play, and you’re watching other actors thinking ‘It would be good to have a go at that one as well, and that one…!’

“On a personal level, I’m always surprised to get employed when it comes to Shakespeare, but that’s the same as musical theatre. You do it because you love it. You don’t necessarily believe you’re going to be great at it, but it’s your passion that gets you through.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“Crikey, everything! My younger self didn’t quite comprehend it. I keep saying to people ‘Those who have had bad experiences of it need a refresher, but you need it with somebody who works well for you’. It’s a bit like singing teachers – you can get through three or four before you find one that you feel good about. At school, I had a decent experience in English, but some tastes arrive later in your life. You might have hated asparagus when you were young, and then all of a sudden you grow up and acquire a taste for it. I don’t know what that difference is, whether it’s something that develops or about finding the right asparagus!

Norman Bowman (Ross) in Macbeth at Manchester International Festival. Photo by Johan Persson. sml
Photo: Johan Persson

“Until I got to college, I saw Shakespeare as like another language. I don’t think it’s essential, but I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of academics ‘get’ Shakespeare. If you look back at your classic actors, like McKellen and Dench, they come across as supremely intellectual. Perhaps they were like that before the discovered Shakespeare, but I believe Shakespeare does that to you. I think it does absolutely enhance the grey matter. It makes you more knowledgeable and intelligent an actor. It’s like opera – once you get to the basics and understand the function, and how much it can do for you, I think the world is your oyster.”

Which Shakespearean character most resembles you, and why?

“Oh, boy! Do I know enough Shakespeare to even draw a parallel? See, this is it, this is why Shakespeare works – because there’s an element of everybody in everyone. It’s all human condition. It’s all because you can sit there as a person and absolutely relate to that character’s journey. If Shakespeare is done properly then that should be the case. I could easily relate to a little bit of Othello, I could easily relate to a little bit of Hamlet. When I’m older, no doubt I’ll be able to relate to Lear. It’s almost like the seven stages of man – you could pretty much find a character for everyone.

“Erm, Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing is a little bit more like me. It’s the gymnastics of relationships. It’s wanting to understand them and then not understanding them, and then getting them and not getting them! Also, that inability to truly communicate how you feel with somebody. Actually, I’m not sure I am that much like Benedict! If anything, when I was younger I’d probably be more like a Romeo with that wide-eyed wonder that comes with meeting somebody and everything else just fading into grey. Like I said, though, my knowledge of Shakespeare still isn’t extensive enough for me to make a truly informed decision with one character only.”

_20171006_132600
Photo: Jonathan Keenan

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

“I guess it’s ‘To thine own self be true’. There’s a poem called Desiderata, and the bulk of it points to this. You know, mindfulness is about this, meditation is about this. A lot of anything we relate to is about those words because it’s about how we feel. Too often, we step outside of ourselves and say what we think somebody wants us to say, or feign affection or whatever. If we could just be ourselves more often…”

What is your favourite Shakespeare related fact, myth story or anecdote?

“Have you read Shakespeare on Toast? [By Ben Crystal] It’s a bit like Shakespeare for Dummies, but it’s a bit more anecdotal. It’s full of stuff. For example, during the American Civil War, a soldier watching a performance of Othello was so taken in by the actor playing the dishonest Iago that he stood up from his seat, drew his pistol and shot the actor dead! I’m pretty sure I’ve read that happened back in Shakespeare’s time as well, because the audience was drawn in so much. Not because they were simple or anything, but because they allowed themselves to disappear into the performance a lot more that they felt so involved.

“The other one is the superstition that you ought not to utter ‘The Scottish Play’ [Macbeth]. If it’s to be taken as truth, it’s that you’re dooming your production to failure and, if so, in the olden days they would then put on a production of ‘The Scottish Play’, it was a guaranteed sell-out. I mean, I’ve said it in Drury Lane and, so far, we’re still running, but I couldn’t see them putting on ‘The Scottish Play’ instead of 42nd Street!”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world, actor or otherwise, to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose, and what role do they play?

“Gosh, I’ve seen Jacobi do Lear, which I thought was incredible. I’ve seen Branagh do Macbeth, which I thought was incredible – to be that close and watch it was amazing. Jude Law doing Henry V, come on, I’ve seen so many good ones it’s so hard to come up with a new one! I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes do Coriolanus. When the day comes for him to do Lear I would love to see that, but that doesn’t feel particularly imaginative!”

We met with scholar, author and poet Paul Edmondson for a delightful catch-up chat in Stratford-upon-Avon during the recent celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday

Paul Edmondson

Paul Edmondson

 
Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now? And what are you getting from it?
“This week I’ve spent a lot of time in New Place garden with the sculptor Greg Wyatt who’s produced those lovely sculptures inspired by Shakespeare’s plays which are installed there. I’ve spent a lot of time – and I’m doing it again this evening with a special group of VIPs – looking at Greg’s sculptures with Greg. It’s about me talking about how he made the sculptures, but then reflecting on them as responses to Shakespeare’s works. So, this week I’ve been very much in my head with The Tempest, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet! Those are the eight sculptures.

“One of the great things about them is that they work on you like a Shakespeare play, each sculpture, because they draw you in and the more you look at them, the more you notice – details, a face emerging, a hand. They’re a great highlight for visitors. In fact, only two days ago when I was there I saw a young father with his five-month-old son, reading him the script  – all of them have got quotations from the relevant plays – from Julius Caesar, as if somehow this was having a positive impact on this five-month-old son. I took his photograph and asked if I could use it and he said yes, feel free to use it. It was most touching, because when I look at people interacting with these sculptures inspired by the plays, I know of no other sculpture like them in the world.

“I mean, I can think of sculptures inspired by individual characters and Shakespeare himself, but not in a response to an entire play – it’s more like a painting. People reach out and touch them, and Greg said this is the highest compliment a sculptor can have, that you somehow want to become the work and reach out and touch it. This five-month-old baby was doing precisely that – it was reaching out to want to touch Julius Caesar!”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?
“This isn’t recently, but I think I would have been surprised about how many books he used to write the plays. I’d have been delighted to know that as a younger self – the bookishness of Shakespeare’s intellect, his sense of study before putting quill to paper. Each play was a significant research project, he wasn’t just dashing these off. Although, of course, they were written at different speeds for different occasions. So, I think that would have been something I’ve learnt since my younger self that I would have been pleased to have known.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Robin Goodfellow in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not going to expand on that one!”

If I asked you to give mne a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“‘If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating’ which is The Winter’s Tale as Hermione’s sculpture is coming to take her long lost husband by the hand. That’s in my head because of the sculpture in New Place. I remember the novelist Salley Vickers said to me that was her favourite line in Shakespeare and that’s resonated with me.”

What is your favourite Shakespeare myth?
“My favourite Shakespeare myth is the deer poaching story from nearby Charlecote. I think there’s more than a grain of truth in that myth. It rings true to me, but it does have the status of myth.”

You have the power to cast anyone (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“I would like to see Sir Stanley Wells play Hamlet. Although he wouldn’t want to do this, in my imagination that would embody Stanley’s pre-eminence in Shakespeare studies. Hamlet is the greatest role in Shakespeare, therefore let’s have the greatest Shakespearean of our own times play him. If I was thinking about an actor, I’d like to Shakespeare himself perform Hamlet. Can you imagine? Apparently, he never did because it was written for Richard Burbage, but it would be great to Shakespeare himself play a role in one of his plays. You’ve got those two outlandish bookends, as it were, but I would also like to see Kenneth Branagh play all the other parts he is qualified to play, but hasn’t!”

Paul will be appearing at the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, which runs from 18-25 June. Go here for information and tickets.

For nearly three decades, actor-director Kenneth Branagh has been bringing the Bard to the big screen. Kelli Marshall asks: has he earned the title of Shakespearean Auteur?

Auteurs are filmmakers whose personal influence and artistic control are so great that, despite the collaborative process of moviemaking, we recognize them as the authors of their films. Auteurs you may have heard of include Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

Henry V

Henry V

What about filmmakers who consistently work within the realm of Shakespeare? Can we consider, for example, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh masters of Shakespeare onscreen?

A recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly takes on the first four directors, so let’s consider Kenneth Branagh – who has brought to screen, in some form or another, nearly 20 percent of Shakespeare’s works.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

Branagh has directed film adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). His 1995 film In The Bleak Midwinter (US title: A Midwinter’s Tale) features a struggling actor who strives to put on a production of Hamlet in a village church. Most recently, rumors have circulated that Martin Scorsese will produce a sort of documentary with Branagh as Macbeth.

Hamlet

Hamlet

Even Branagh’s non-Shakespearean ventures feature Shakespearean themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) contains Hamlet’s existential ideas, a Titus Andronicus-like house of spare body parts, and echoes of Caliban as Robert De Niro’s monster laments onscreen: “Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man”.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Additionally, Branagh’s Hollywood blockbusters like Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2014) consist of, respectively, a flawed hero who must earn the right to be king and a fairy-tale world that Branagh has, in interviews, likened to The Winter’s Tale. Finally, also reaffirming Branagh’s association with cinematic Shakespeare are his turn as Iago in Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995) and as Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2011).

As You Like It

As You Like It

Another reason we can consider Branagh an auteur of Shakespeare onscreen is his loyalty to British Shakespeare actors and production team. This deliberate choice contributes not only to Branagh’s style, but also to the films’ seeming credibility. In other words, trained British actors “doing Shakespeare” are theoretically more palatable for many audiences than someone like Al Pacino, for example, whose American accent was ridiculed in his Richard III-based documentary, Looking for Richard (1996).

Othello

Othello

Like John Ford, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, Kenneth Branagh recycles collaborators. He consistentely employs Tim Harvey (production designer), Patrick Doyle (composer) and Roger Lanser (cinematographer) as well as core cast members like Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford and Richard Briers. Indeed, when these names appear onscreen, we know we’re getting a Branagh film.

That said, Branagh also stocks his films with multinational and multiracial casts. He knows that, in order for his Shakespeare adaptations to succeed in the US, American stars like Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Kline and Bryce Dallas Howard can help boost those box-office receipts.

In The Bleak Midwinter

In The Bleak Midwinter

Speaking of casting, Kenneth Branagh also repeatedly casts himself in his own adaptations. Like Spike Lee and Woody Allen, this makes him a director/auteur who unquestionably stamps his own personality onto his body of work. Aside from As You Like It, in which he appears only via voiceover, each of Branagh’s Shakespeare films stars Kenneth Branagh.

Moreover, as Jessica Maerz reminds readers in Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century, virtually all of Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations are based on previous theatrical productions in which he starred at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Renaissance Theatre Company. Again, this decision lends a sense of credibility to Branagh’s filmic work.

My Week With Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn

As a Shakespeare film director, Branagh mostly eschews early modern settings and costumes, a decision that reinforces his desire to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet offer audiences a vague notion of the past, and the Shepperton soundstage for Love’s Labour’s Lost has been described as being “decked out with walls, willows and punts to make a kind of ‘movie Oxbridge’.”

Only with As You Like It does Branagh give viewers a specific historical time and place: the film’s title card begins with: “In the latter part of the 19th century, Japan opened up for trade with the West”. For Branagh then, moving around Shakespeare physically and temporally makes it seem as though he, as the Washington Post once noted, is finally “blowing away the forbidding academic dust”.

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Director Branagh with the stars of Thor

Finally, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations (and many of his non-Shakespeare films) include rich mise-en-scenes and sweeping cinematography, both of which serve to illuminate Shakespeare’s poetry and prose.

Recall the lushness of color, texture, food, and costume within Branagh’s Much Ado and As You Like It, both visually romantic films. Even his Hamlet – with its wintry setting, the never-ending streams of gilded mirrors, and the hardened stone walls of Blenheim Palace – appear visually luxurious on a 30-foot screen, not to mention in 70mm (as it premiered).

Likewise, Branagh’s cinematographic choices – specifically sequence shots, or scenes that unfold in one long take, and Steadicam tracking shots that encircle characters – work with the flow of Shakespeare’s language. Perhaps the most memorable example of both of these stylistic choices is his four-minute tracking shot in Henry V, in which Branagh’s Prince Hal carries his dead luggage boy (Christian Bale) across the solider-strewn battlefield as ‘Non Nobis’ somberly plays on the soundtrack.

Cinderella

Cinderella

Like other filmmakers who’ve been labelled auteurs, Kenneth Branagh is drawn to distinct stories, themes and motifs. He commits to a core cast and crew (that often includes himself). He also refuses to set Shakespeare contemporaneously and possesses a passionate desire to bring Shakespeare’s language to the masses.

Finally, he boasts a signature directorial style and production aesthetic. But through it all, Kenneth Branagh almost always helps to shine a light on Shakespeare – and really, isn’t that what a master of Shakespeare onscreen should do?

Hail to the Bard! The shiny new-look Shakespeare Magazine 11 is adorned with a simply stunning cover image of rising young stars Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s here! Please, read, enjoy and share far & wide the completely free delight that is Shakespeare Magazine 11!

Issue 11 Cover

The shiny new-look Shakespeare Magazine 11 is adorned with a simply stunning cover image of rising young stars Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet.

Head straight to page 6 to discover what our reviewer thought of the production. (Clue: she loved it)

Also in Issue 11, SK Moore tells us about his compelling new graphic novel of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, while broadcaster Samira Ahmed turns her magnificently mercurial mind to the subject of Shakespeare.

We have words with Pub Landlord comedian Al Murray about his recent brush with the Bard (and Judi Dench) at RSC Shakespeare Live.

And our Editor gorges himself on a 3-DVD box set of 1960s television Shakespeare classic The Wars of the Roses.

Check out our chat with the great Don Warrington, star of Talawa Theatre’s earth-shaking King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange – youthful co-star Alfred Enoch joins in too.

Following up last issue’s cheeky Shakespeare/Star Wars feature we’ve dared to imagine what Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet would look like. (Looks pretty darn cool, actually)

We also take the opportunity to explore the life of Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais’ classic Victorian painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

And last but very much not least, Bristol’s Insane Root Theatre take us very deep into a cave in order to scare the living daylights out of us with their Macbeth!

And remember, you can read all 11 issues of Shakespeare Magazine completely free here.

Book your seat for the UK and US cinema screenings of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, starring stage legends Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench

[Images by Johan Persson. Dench Portrait: Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company]

Captured live from London’s famed Garrick Theatre, this prestigious production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is being broadcast to cinemas across the globe.

THE WINTER’S TALE
For many of us, it will be the only chance we get to see two living Shakespeare legends – Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh (who also directs).

Stanley Wells, Shakespeare expert and author of Great Shakespeare Actors, recently tweeted: “For an object lesson in speaking Shakespeare’s verse, hear Judi Dench as Time in The Winter’s Tale”.

BTL_WintersTale_PortraitImage
For UK screenings of The Winter’s Tale, on Thursday 26 November, go here to find a cinema near you and book tickets.

For screenings in the USA on Monday 30 November, go here to find a cinema near you and book tickets.

KBwinters2015prodJP_08001
Apart from Kenneth Branagh as Leontes and Judi Dench as Paulina and Time, The Winter’s Tale also stars Tom Bateman as Florizel, Jessie Buckley as Perdita, Hadley Fraser as Polixenes and Miranda Raison as Hermione.

THE WINTER’S TALE
And the talented supporting cast includes stage veterans John Shrapnel and Michael Pennington. John Dagleish and Zoe Rainey also feature.

Go here for more on Branagh Theatre Company and The Winter’s Tale.

Issue 07 of Shakespeare Magazine is out now, celebrating 425 years of Great Shakespeare Actors

Ken Cover 07
Kenneth Branagh is cover star of Shakespeare Magazine 07, in keeping with the issue’s theme of Great Shakespeare Actors.

The venerable Stanley Wells discusses his new book on the subject, handily titled Great Shakespeare Actors, while Antony Sher reveals what it’s like to play Falstaff – the subject of his own new book Year of the Fat Knight.

We also go behind the scenes of the excellent My Shakespeare TV series, while British actress Zoe Waites chats about heading to the USA to play As You Like It’s Rosalind with Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Other highlights include Shakespeare in Turkey, Shakespeare Opera, and the real story of Shakespeare and the Essex Plot.

All this, and the Russian fans who made their own edition of David Tennant’s Richard II

Go here to read Shakespeare Magazine 07 right now.

And don’t forget, you can read all seven issues of Shakespeare Magazine here.

As always, Shakespeare Magazine is completely FREE.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
Brooke Hamlet Scarf
Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

One of the most admired all-rounders in the Shakespeare world, Ben Crystal reckons we should “speak the speech” the way the Bard did. And that means “from the gut and the groin…”

Portraits of Ben Crystal by Piper Williams for Shakespeare Magazine.

Perhaps best known for his Shakespeare on Toast book and Passion in Practice workshops, Ben Crystal is an actor, writer, producer and director. Alongside his father, linguist David Crystal, he has pioneered the practice of Original Pronunciation, getting as close as he can to how Shakespeare would have sounded to Elizabethan audiences.

_MG_6164

Would you define your work as a Shakespearean quest?
“Yeah, definitely! I didn’t start out on a quest, I started off wanting to act it more than anything. And then the ideas for the books came up one by one and I became known as the boy who wrote that book. I struggled to get acting auditions for Shakespeare and then, partly though the writing and partly through needing an outlet, I found myself doing more workshops, writing more, exploring more. Finding the issues in both performance and education and in audiences’ perception of Shakespeare and what seemed to be missing, and chasing that down.”

_MG_6160
“Now, through following this path of spreading the word of the Bard, I’ve explored disciplines like pronunciation, become fascinated by the idea of the original Shakespeare ensemble, found myself with an education programme, an OP programme and a Shakespeare ensemble. If you’d asked me when I was 16 or 17 what my dream was, it would have been to be at the RSC. But you follow the path you’re on, and the path I’m on certainly seems to be a quest. I’m very happy with it.”

_MG_6155

Could you explain Original Pronunciation for those who are new to the term?
“It’s a recreation of the soundscape, the accents that Shakespeare’s actors spoke in 400 years ago, in the same way as the Globe spaces are recreations of the original spatial dynamics. It’s a recreation of a sound system, not an attempt to be authentic – because that’s impossible, and there’s only so much you’re going to learn from authenticity. The Globe spaces are as close as we can get to what the spaces looked like, felt like, and we have spent a fair amount of time trying to work out how that can change or improve the way that we act Shakespeare. It’s exactly the same with this sound.”

_MG_6145

How do you go about recreating the accent?
“It’s based on my father’s scholarly work for the Globe in 2004. He gathered all the evidence he could from three sources. One of these was the rhymes. Often Shakespeare’s rhymes don’t work in a modern accent. To let them rhyme again requires particular types of vowel qualities. That’s one source of data. Then, if you go back to the Folio and the Quartos, they used to spell a lot more like they spoke. So, for example, the word film was spelt philome which is very definitely a two syllable word (fil’um) which you still hear in Northern Ireland. That’s an Elizabethan pronunciation carried over from 400 years ago.”

_MG_6142
“Then there were people who wrote linguistic-like descriptions of what the accent sounded like. With those three sources of data combined you get to about 90 percent and that last 10 percent drives my father crazy, but he can’t fill it in. I see it as a great advantage because it means that if you and I were to form a Shakespeare company using OP then we would sound 90 percent the same but then that last 10 percent will be filled up with our natural accents, the story, the audible vocal sound of our experiences.”

_MG_6141
“Compare that to using RP [Received Pronunciation] which is not tied to a particular geographic location. If there is one thing that accent means to people, it’s identity and territory. To me, the idea that Shakespeare should be spoken in this identity-less accent where it flattens out everybody’s character and they all sound the same, takes away its inherent uniqueness.”

_MG_6134

How different does it feel to perform in OP?
“Acting in RP versus OP or even in your own natural accent, your actor’s centre will shift.
A lot of people find in RP that their centre tends to be around their throat. When I act in my natural accent I find that my centre shifts to my chest. And with OP the centre shifts all the way down to your gut and into your groin. You plant your feet much more firmly on the ground and it tends to lead you to stronger character choices.”

_MG_6132
“They tend to be earthier, more active choices and, as a knock-on effect, you tend to move faster as well. You follow Hamlet’s advice to ‘speak the speech trippingly on the tongue’. It ramps everything up and you’re flying around the stage connecting with fellow actors in a vastly different way. One of the final results of all that is that it tends to engage your heart rather than your head. And people tend to find that it’s easier to understand and they tend to get more emotionally engaged. And that’s all we want – to make you laugh, make you cry, bring the audience along with us.”

_MG_6130

Do you think OP can attract bigger, more mainstream audiences?
“That’s an interesting question. Because of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending time on it. But I have to caveat that it’s not a cash bunny. I don’t see it as the sort of a performance quality in Shakespeare that money can be made out of necessarily. I’m excited by it. Irrespective of whether or not it becomes popular, there is nothing a Shakespeare geek is excited more by than an unexplored area of his field.”

_MG_6129

Is there a key thing that you’ve discovered by performing in OP?
“There are plenty of lost rhymes and lost puns, but the biggest discovery has been more ephemeral, really. More abstract or intangible, because you end up with a different play on your hands. You speak the lines differently and end up with characters who are completely different animals to those you expected. When I did Hamlet there was no question that he was anything like the stereotypical passive, indecisive, boring fellow. He became almost Sherlock Holmesian in the way he was trying to discover the truth. He was active. And that, in part, came from the OP. So we’re rediscovering the plays in new lights, not just the words.”

_MG_6114
What other interesting things do you think are currently happening Shakespeare-wise?
“The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is interesting. There are plans to build a Shakespearean theatre for Shakespeare North. I’m intrigued by the Maxine Peake Hamlet that was up at the Royal Exchange and by the all-female company explorations that have been going on at The Donmar. There’s a lot of younger companies exploring Shakespeare – there’s Smooth Faced Gentlemen, The HandleBards, who go round on bikes. There’s lots of cool, interesting stuff in the underground as well as all the companies running around the country doing open-air Shakespeare. It’s interesting that both the Globe and the RSC have brought in international companies.”

_MG_6106

“The reason we’re having this conversation, the reason there’s a Shakespeare Magazine is that these plays really, really are wonderful. He had a capacity and a knack for exploring the human condition and the way that we think – and why we do the things that we do – in such an amazing way that it’s really hard to get them wrong. And yet we do. There is something that these international companies are tapping into.”

_MG_6104
“Or maybe it’s tapping into something in us. Because we are both in tandem released from the pressure of ‘how are they going to deliver this famous line?’ I think we are being taught a lot by Europe and Eastern Europe about something that we’re missing with Shakespeare, craft and a long rehearsal period, a return to the ensemble. They are not restricted because they’re not bound to our language and they have a playfulness with it that I think we’re losing.”

_MG_6091

You’ve travelled widely, how would you say Shakespeare is perceived around the world?
“Away from the UK everyone loves him! It’s a generalisation but it’s not too far off. I do not meet students who dislike him so much overseas but I do encounter this ownership issue that whilst they have a tremendous passion, heart and love for Shakespeare, there is still this idea that ‘We don’t do it right because we don’t have the right sound or we don’t have English training’.”

_MG_6087
“Americans have embraced OP, though. Because the accent that left London 400 years ago got on the boats and went to the Americas. So when they hear OP they don’t say ‘Oh God, that sounds alien to us’. They hear accent qualities they can relate to and rather than thinking ‘We can’t do Shakespeare because we don’t have that beautiful RP accent. We don’t have any ownership over Shakespeare, even though we love him’, they say ‘Oh my goodness, he actually sounds like us, we can do this’. So it’s no wonder that they’ve embraced it. There is some really, really fascinating work both in the States and across the world. I just wish there was more flow, that more would come over. And, indeed, the other way.”

_MG_6086
We’ve mentioned your father, David Crystal. In You Say Potato the relationship between the two of you bounces of the page. What’s it like work with your dad?
“It’s a pain in the neck and it is the most wonderful, joyous experience that you could possibly wish for! I came up with the idea for Shakespeare’s Words when I was 22. I was lucky to work with a parent at such a young age. We became friends, and we got to know each other so quickly. He certainly wasn’t used to someone telling him he was wrong. There absolutely were disputes. He taught me how to articulate an argument, he taught me how to articulate myself. I am utterly blessed and feel lucky to have both that working and familial friendship with him and my mum. And I’m especially lucky that, considering how much of an expert he is, how experienced he is – and that even though sometimes it does take a little bit of shouting – he is always perceptive and open to new ideas.”

_MG_6080
“You can’t really ask for a better colleague than that. So to be able to take his research on and explore it practically, it’s really wonderful. It’s a celebration of his research and it’s a continuation and an exploration of it that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do himself. So we are a good partnership in that respect.”

_MG_6074

So, if you had one big Shakespearean aspiration, What would it be?
“To change the education system, fundamentally, from the top down or the bottom up, whichever way is quickest. To refresh Shakespeare production and performance and the perception of it in a similar way that Gielgud, Olivier, Burton or Branagh has done. I would like very much to spend a considerable amount of time training and forming a company – much like the ensemble I’ve been starting to form – in a Globe-like space, and see where that may take us. To have artistic directorship of a place like The Globe or the Wanamaker, building our own space and recreating a similar sort of dynamic, that would be fine.”

_MG_6057

“And coming away from these experiences in 20-25 years time and having someone in their twenties or thirties saying ‘Ben Crystal’s wrong, his ideas had their time and now this is where we need to go with Shakespeare’ would be a dream come true.”

_MG_6041

Find out more about Ben’s approach to Shakespeare at the Passion in Practice website.

This interview originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.