Hamlet: Rotten States, image by Nico Lanio

You may or may not know that this month I have been performing at The Hope Theatre in Islington in 6FootStories’ reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which we have called HAMLET: ROTTEN STATES.

As the three-week run enters its final show, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the whole creative process, as a reminder to myself of where I was at emotionally on 1st February 2020, before putting the project to bed for a while, and moving on to pastures new, until such a time when we take it out of the cupboard and reveal it once more to the world.

A difficult second album..?

The first thing to say is that this show always felt like a difficult second album. In 2016 we (Nigel Munson and I, along with the inimitable Will Bridges, pictured below) presented Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury at The Hope Theatre, Islington, after spending the better part of a year mulling over the possibility of how 6FootStories might tackle a Shakespeare play. Macbeth felt like the obvious choice as we had already been working with a couple of characters that were not too far away from the witches, and thus began cooking up ideas for how the whole thing would be framed. I always felt that it was important not to be just another Macbeth. And so we discovered that we could tell Macbeth’s story from the witches’ point of view, and beyond that we would go to the next stage by never actually meeting Macbeth within our show. To that end, we moved the opening scene of the play: “When shall we three meet again…” to the very end of our show, thus sending the witches off on their mission to wreck Macbeth’s life. It fitted, it worked and we went on to tour the show around the country. Reviewers and audiences alike were excited by it, and it got us wondering if we might have hit upon a winning formula?

Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, image by Nomad Creative Studio

But where does one go from there? The witches don’t feature in any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The question that concerned me was: is it too much of a leap to have them wreck other lives within Shakespeare’s canon? Perhaps, perhaps not. What I was sure of was that our witches couldn’t remain as disjointed from reality as they were in Macbeth, full of sound and fury, raging against the world. Maybe some of that could remain, but they needed to evolve, as we individually have evolved since we first did Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury.

But first, what would the next play be? As a company we have always been fascinated by the extraordinary, and Macbeth was full of that. Shakespeare doesn’t shy away from the extraordinary. Look at The Tempest. Look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But as comedies, I wondered how effective our framing and twisting of the text would be, as we found that we could unlock a great deal of humour out of Macbeth’s tragedy. For me it needed to be something ambitious, something equally tragic with that extraordinary and supernatural edge.

Thus we turned to Hamlet. But where are the witches in Hamlet, I hear you ask? Well, for us it made sense that the players Hamlet welcomes to Elsinore to deliver his play The Mousetrap might be in the same league as the witches. They are not supernatural and extraordinary in the same way as the witches, I grant you, yet they do hold the power to transform and to influence. After all, it is not until the play within the play is performed that the action of Hamlet starts to develop towards its bitter ending. In other words, the players represented for us a pivotal turning point within the original play, and because of that it seemed worth investigating in order to see how we could shape the tale.

At this point I must mention that we had a bit of a personnel change within the project. Due to Nigel being in Manchester throughout the entirety of December working on a Christmas show, and his and Marissa’s baby being due in February, it was absolutely right that he step aside for this project. It was ambitious and a little bit naive on both our parts to think that we could go ahead as normal. We had already cast the superb Amy Fleming for the role of our third player, and when the decision was made for Nigel to step aside it made complete sense that his replacement should be Will Bridges, who offered so much expertise and work in creating Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury with us. Not having Nigel in the room was going to be a challenge, absolutely, as he brings such an energy and theatricality and analysis to the text, but in lieu of him being there, I knew that Will and Amy would more than make up for his absence.

The Days of Cutting

Amy Fleming, Will Bridges, and I

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. It is also quite exceptional in that there are three different early texts – two Quartos and the Folio – which offer quite stark variations. When we first worked on Macbeth we each read the play from a different print – I favoured the Arden, Nigel the Penguin and I can’t remember what Will had. This in itself caused heated discussion, as there were variations of words and lines that one or other of us favoured, but this was particularly useful and in the end such an invigorating process because it forced us to justify our individual analyses of the text, and to bring an avid scrutiny to our work.

When it came to working on Hamlet, however, it felt to me that we could fall down a very deep rabbit hole indeed. Not only would we be dealing with the fact that the three of us would almost certainly be reading from a different print (I, again, favoured the Arden) but also we would have to make decisions based on which of the early texts had been favoured by those editors. What to do?

Well, very simply, time was the enemy, and thus we just had to get on with it. We only had four days available to us before Christmas to cut the text and to flesh out as much as possible the world we would be inhabiting before we got into the rehearsal room in the new year. We began by reading the play, by talking through the concept as it stood following mine and Nigel’s initial conversations, and then we started to piece it all together, starting with the bare bones of the story, and ending with the nuances of our individual player characters.

Will and I in mid-cut

As I sit and reflect on that process, the above sentence makes it all seem very simple. In some ways it was, actually, because the three of us were very attuned to one another, and in moments where a certain section of the play felt particularly tricky and problematic for someone, someone else was there to work at untangling meaning and offer up a solution for how it fitted into the concept. As I reflect further, I actually realise just how complex that process was, because the job wasn’t simply to cut the text, it was also to simultaneously build a framework almost from scratch – I say almost because we had Macbeth: A Tale of Sound and Fury to work from. Two jobs in one. In four days. With Shakespeare’s longest play. Gosh.

The Rehearsals

We arrived into the New Year with this looming task ahead of us: eight full rehearsal days to get the show up and running, and then a tech rehearsal and a dress. No easy feat. And yet the time pressure spurred us on to make it happen.

Will and Amy

The biggest challenge was being in the rehearsal room on our own. Personally I felt that I was playing catch-up with myself. I’m not just an actor in this space, I’m director, I’m stage manager, I’m dramaturg, I’m sound designer etc etc etc. We wanted to challenge ourselves by operating the lights and sound ourselves, for example. When one wears all of those hats simultaneously inevitably certain aspects of those responsibilities get sidelined or forgotten about. Just like spinning several plates, eventually one or two of them will fall. And that was how I felt about my acting – particularly learning the lines. Throughout those 8 days it was imperative that the structure of the show was developed, that its flow through the story was maintained and that our concept could flourish, not to mention getting to grips with all the technical business.

We were very pleased when Nigel joined us in the rehearsal room to be our outside eye. This was invaluable as we were able to tighten up certain aspects of the show that at that moment weren’t quite working. It felt challenging at the time to suddenly invite someone else into the space, but without it we would not have the show we have ended up with.

The Performances

As with any piece of theatre, a show doesn’t become a finished product once the rehearsals are over and done with. Hamlet: Rotten States in particular is a show that has continued to grow and develop with each new audience that has seen it. Even now, as I sit here hours before we put on the final show of the run, I know that tonight’s show will be unlike the 14 others that have preceded it. No 2 shows have been the same; Will, Amy and I have constantly been discovering nuances and surprises – yes, some of those have originated from mistakes, but that’s the beauty of theatre, and we celebrate that within our framing of Hamlet taking place within the players’ rehearsal room.

I am sad to say goodbye to this show. But I am excited to see where it takes us all next.

Image by Matthew Kaltenborn

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