During the winter of 2018 I suddenly realised I really, really wanted to play Hamlet. I began gathering a cast, looking for a venue - I even did a cut and a few of us had a read-through. Then for one reason or another, the cast got too busy, so I let it go. Then suddenly, in May, an audition for AFTLS's tour of Hamlet fell right into my lap, and I got the job.
AFTLS is one of the world's oldest surviving touring companies - founded, legend has it, when an American college professor wheedled his way backstage at the RSC more than forty-five years ago, plying Patrick Stewart with some nice whiskey to come and do a workshop with his students. He then made him an offer - you and four pals get a version together of a Shakespeare play, make it very easy to tour, (all the props and costumes have to be able to fit in one suitcase) and I'll find the money to pay you to do it all over the USA. The company still sends out two shows a year. And - no director.
Which had it's challenges; again, I missed having an omphalos, and it's easy to fall right into a role like that head first, without an outside eye being a safety net. But no director is better than a bad director, and the cast were amazing and supportive and it did mean that I had free rein to play the Hamlet I wanted to play - a Hamlet I hadn't seen before. There were a bunch of things that had been annoying me, so I went back to the sources Shakespeare had drawn from to try and understand his choices better. In 'The Hystorie of Hamblet' Chapter II, the prince's pretended madness is compared to a Roman prince Brutus, and to King David, who to protect himself from being a target, 'rent and tore his clothes, wallowing and lying in the dirt and mire, face all filthy and black, running through the streets like a man distraught' and it started to make a bit more sense. I had only seen Hamlet going mad in quite a pretty way in lots of productions - often angry and emotional, but nothing that would make me cross the street. I figured it was more likely that Shakespeare's Hamlet might make more of a physical transformation in the way that Edgar does in King Lear, becoming Mad Tom - so as to really go under the radar, completely write himself off, because otherwise, if he believes Claudius to be a murderer who wants to keep his throne secure, Hamlet would surely be next on his list. So between Act 1 and Act 2 my Hamlet changed from being rather elegant and royal, to looking like I'd been living on the street for a couple of months - barefoot, greasy, ragged, covered in mud - 'Will you walk out of the air?' Polonius asks Hamlet, as in, please come inside. Before the show every day I wrote all over my arms and legs, (free-association-poetry, and tallies of the nights and days and thoughts) so that when I revealed them in Act 2 it was like Hamlet had been writing all over himself - his own skin, not only Denmark, becoming prison walls. I dragged around a plastic suitcase full of newspaper and rubbish (kindly sourced by each theatre we visited, as we couldn't fit it all in the tour suitcase). By the time the Mousetrap was happening, Hamlet had underpants on his head, which he threw triumphantly into the air, as Claudius stormed off stage and Polonius hurriedly tried to save face, forcing an interval on the audience.
One of the challenges for the group was to find a way to define the playing space, as we were touring venues of all shapes and sizes and configurations. At one point, I convinced the (outstandingly brave and extremely patient) gang to make a circle entirely built out of mounds of rubbish - as if the whole play was happening on a giant landfill. Someone mentioned a story they'd heard in the news of a man falling asleep drunk in a skip, and being suffocated to death when he got tipped into a rubbish truck - we all found it haunting. Eventually we pared it back to a taped white circle, but the rubbish did have it's moment, being spilled on to the stage by the Gravediggers at the beginning of Act 5 to form the graveyard. At the end of the burial of Ophelia, she (represented by this point by a diaphanous piece of white fabric) was swept off the stage, with all the trash, by the gleeful Gravediggers, right into the front row.
HAMLET / MARCELLUS / FORTINBRAS...............Madeleine Hyland
POLONIUS / GRAVEDIGGER / OSRIC.................................Peter Bray
GERTRUDE / HORATIO / ROSENCRANTZ...............Wendy Morgan
CLAUDIUS / GHOST / GRAVEDIGGER...............................Ben Eagle
OPHELIA / LAERTES / GUILDENSTERN....................Grace Andrews
Directed and Designed by the Cast, with assistance from
Sian Williams (Movement), Philip d'Orleans (Fight Choreography),
and Scott Jackson
Casting by Jack Whitam and Anna Wright
Produced by Actors from the London Stage for Shakespeare at Notre Dame
Performed on tour around the USA, September-November 2018
and at the Cockpit Theatre, London, November 20th & 21st