Skulls, skulduggery, ghosts and gravediggers filled Shaftesbury’s Library on Thursday night, as a group of local actors offered an after-hours preview of their new, slimmed-down production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Director Dave Hollis has trimmed the tragedy. “I love directing Shakespeare and I realised that one of the plays I’ve never directed was Hamlet. It’s a huge task because it’s nearly four hours long,” Dave explained.
When Hamlet is performed at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Sunday 19th and 20th May, the play will be just 70 minutes long. Dave has edited the text heavily. “By and large, I took large sections out. Thank heavens for computers and Word,” he said. “I put the whole thing on the screen and then worked through it, cut some, worked through it again, cut some more and added it all up. Then I still ran for two hours. I cut even more and we had a read through and it worked,” said Dave.
Dave told the audience that had gathered to watch the library preview production that you wouldn’t expect to cut a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece down to quarter size, but it is possible to distil the best bits of ‘the bard’s’ work. “It’s the strength of Shakespeare’s writing, and I’m not quite sure why it works, but an enormous amount survives. All of it is strong,” explained Dave.
At the end of the performance there was time for audience questions. One person asked whether one of his favourite lines from Hamlet was going to be delivered. People do have expectations but Dave says he won’t keep famous phrases in the script if they don’t make sense in his abridged version. “It’s got to work and be in context, otherwise it’s just the highlights. It’s got to flow. It’s got to be justified,” he said.
Dave can remove sequences but, because it’s Shakespeare, there is little scope for improvisation if you can’t remember the precise words. Actors need to be word perfect. It is not easy for anyone to memorise 400-year-old text and actress Marie Stubbs, who plays Gertrude, the Queen, has had to concentrate hard when learning the antiquated English.
“I’m French and when I’m performing a Shakespeare play I might mispronounce something slightly. But actually I found it a great pleasure to really get into it. It’s just wonderful to listen to and to learn about the rhythm as well,” said Marie.
The cast took to the library floor to act out selected scenes from Hamlet while Dave provided some narration and context to give a sense of continuity. When the show transfers to the Arts Centre, the audience will be sitting around the actors as they perform the play, just like at the library. The production will be ‘in the round’, and won’t be acted up on the stage.
“We have thirty in the audience – thirty chairs in a circle – and the actors play in the centre. It’s about the size that you’ve seen in here in the library,” said Dave. He’s done this before and it worked well. “18 months ago at the Shaftsbury Arts Centre we had a very successful production of Romeo and Juliet ‘in the round’ that I kept to seventy minutes. It was absolutely great, just having thirty people sitting with the actors in the middle,” said Dave.
Producer of Hamlet, Susan Grant, says that performing ‘in the round’ changes the way in which actors interact with the theatregoers. “When you’re in rehearsal, you find yourself talking in one direction, maybe you’re turning around. When you’ve actually got people there, you realise their feet are in the way or you’re very close and you’re almost on someone’s lap. So it’s really becoming aware of that intimacy and not being able to face one way all the time. It’s having to direct your conversation,” Susan said.
Dave enjoys immersing the audience in the action. “The actors love it. They get quite nervous because they are within a metre of the audience. When we did ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Juliet actually died on the feet of one of the members of the audience which is absolutely wonderful!”
Tickets for the production, which will take place upstairs in The Rutter Room, are available for all four shows at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Sunday 19th May and 7pm and 9pm on Monday 20th May. They are priced at £5.