Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hamlet by Isaac

Here's a little something that Isaac wrote about his experience doing Hamlet. Enjoy!


Before we left town for our camping/sailing trip, I took part in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. For those who don't know, the general story goes like this (spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraphs if you want to see a Hamlet production and be surprised. You can start again where I say "Spoiler over").

At the beginning of the play a ghost appears to a trio of guards, including Horatio, Hamlet's best friend, who reports the occurrence back to Hamlet, the protagonist. The ghost matches the description of Hamlet's dead father, who died four months past in his orchard. When Hamlet goes to see the ghost, the ghost tells him that King Claudius, brother to the late King and uncle to Hamlet, murdered his brother and took the throne and queen for himself. Hamlet is angered by the news, but wishing to be sure it is truth, he hires some actors to recreate his father's murder in front of Claudius, hoping to see some proof of his guilt by his reaction to the play. He and Horatio decide that Claudius is guilty. Claudius, knowing that Hamlet thinks he's guilty, makes arrangements to send Hamlet to England.

After the play Claudius is plagued by guilt for the murder of his brother, while Hamlet goes to his mother to talk to her. The King arranged the meeting before hand at the urging of Polonius, to whose daughter Hamlet had flirted with and subsequently hurt as his mind began to crumble. Polonius assures the King he will eavesdrop on the conversation and say how necessary it is to ship Hamlet to England. The talk quickly escalates to shouting and his mother becomes afraid for her life. Polonius shouts for help and Hamlet, believing it to be Claudius, stabs and kills him. His mother begins to unravel and Hamlet becomes ever nastier. Then the ghost appears and Hamlet begs it for mercy while his mother looks on in horror; she cannot see the ghost, and believes him mad. Hamlet leaves and Claudius storms in. Hamlet, it is decided, is very definitely going to England.

After Hamlet leaves, the royal couple gets a bit of respite. Then Ophelia, Polonius's daughter, goes mad. After the queen tries to comfort her, Laertes, just returned from France at the news of his father's death, storms the castle with a ragtag army of angry Danes. He demands of the King to know how his father died, and Claudius tells him of Hamlet's crime. Before Laertes responds, Ophelia enters again and Laertes becomes aware that his sister has gone mad. After Ophelia exits again Laertes is in shock, and Claudius uses the opening to turn the man to his advantage and turn him against Hamlet. While they are speaking, Claudius receives a message from Hamlet. According to the letter, Hamlet has returned to Denmark and wishes to apologize personally to the King. Laertes anger begins to rekindle and Claudius, after probing the depths to which the man would go to get his revenge, begins to outline a plan. Laertes is known by all the nobility in Denmark as a superb fighter with dagger and rapier. Hamlet is envious of the fame and has always wished to challenge him to a bout. They would have a friendly bout with dulled blades, but Laertes would switch blades without being noticed and acquire a sharp one. Laertes agrees to the plan, and adds that he will envenom the tip of the sword so that if it scratches Hamlet it will kill him. Claudius expands upon this by saying that in the unlikely event that Laertes fails, Claudius would give Hamlet a poisoned cup to drink from. Just then, the queen enters the room. She brings news the Ophelia has drowned. Laertes, whose anger Claudius just calmed, flares up again and runs out, and Claudius follows to make sure he doesn't undo the progress he just made.

A funeral is held for Ophelia. At the funeral, Hamlet shows up uninvited, and he and Laertes end up in the grave fighting. They have to be pulled apart by Horatio and other attendants before the funeral desolves into chaos.

Finally, the time comes for the fencing bout. Laertes switches out his sword for the sharpened, envenomed one. Hamlet has a dull blade. They fight a couple bouts, after which Queen Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup set aside for Hamlet. Then Laertes hits Hamlet and the whole courtyard goes quiet as everyone realizes Laertes has a sharp blade. Hamlet goes at Laertes and pulls his sword off of him and, after a bit more fighting, wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword. Right then the poison in the queen takes effect and she falls. Laertes reveals the treachery that has occurred, and tells that the King is behind it all. Hamlet stabs the King then makes him drink the poisoned cup, before exchanging forgiveness with Laertes. Laertes dies as Horatio rushes to Hamlet's aid and, despairing, attempts to follow his friend by drinking the last of the poison. Hamlet pulls the cup from Horatio and drinks it himself, then tells Horatio to live and tell the story of what happened before dying with the line, "...The rest is silence."

Spoiler over. Intense story right?

I played Laertes in our performance, and it was definitely a ton of fun. However, the full story begins two weeks before the final performance. This was our first day of rehearsal; before this, we had only all come together for the auditions. We set right to work. By the end of the week the whole play had taken shape and we were able to do a full run through. From here on out rehearsals would be detail oriented.

My role as Laertes meant I was a part of the duel with Hamlet at the end of the story. We blocked out every part of the fight as fast as we could, and it turned out to be the longest sequence of fighting I had ever taken part in. I ended up stabbing my own foot entirely more often than was strictly necessary, but we got it in the end.

I also played a role musically. It was small, but at my begging the directors allowed me to play guitar in a song along with our amazing musical director/actor (whom I will call by his part in the play, the Ghost). Thanks guys!

An interesting product of working with a tragedy was that after we had been working on a particularly intense scene I would feel a sense of sadness weighing down on me. I suspected this would happen and also thought I could keep it from affecting me. However, I think it did affect me evenings after rehearsals. And it did affect me during rehearsals.

Sometime during the rehearsals I split my knuckle on a metal door. I had been playing with some friends and laughed off their incredulity when I showed them. I put it down to teenage stupidity and a desire to test my limits, and I still believe that's what most of it was. It was something I had wanted to do for years. But I can't help but wonder how much of it had to do with my own frustration at my strange emotional swings. On a happier note, my friend and I used that same time period to teach ourselves and practice juggling six balls between the two of us. Let me tell you, it's harder than juggling three balls by yourself, and both of us are pretty good jugglers.

The stage we were going to use was in the Masonic Temple, downtown in our hometown. The issue of what space to use had been interesting. For the majority of the rehearsals we had used a taped up section of a little rent out public space. So we had to transfer everything we had done to a new space the night before the opening performance. The Thursday before the opening performance, we went to the new space and began working entrances and exits, ignoring the rest of the scene. I didn't have much to do at first and played guitar. We finished around 7:00 or 7:30. I was tired and ready to be done.

Friday afternoon we got together for our first and last dress rehearsal. That night was opening night; this was our last chance to troubleshoot.

When we had done the entrance/exit work the night before, we hadn't had the whole stage set up yet. Now we did and it was smaller than expected. Hamlet and I shared a thought and a look; our sword fight would have to be much more controlled in this space. We couldn't hit a cast member or worse, an audience member. Not an option.

I immediately set out on the wrong foot. Everything that had been building up inside me crashed into me as we were prepping for the rehearsal and my mom was leaving. I shouldered through it for my first few scenes, then sat in a corner and hugged my knees to my chest as I struggled to work through what I was feeling. I have a habit of lashing out at those around me to explain my negative feelings. Feelings and emotions were crashing through me like I had never experienced before. I had to stop blaming other people and focus on my emotions and figure out what was going on. What had caused this? How could I change my behavior, my expectations to get my emotions calmed and into a happier state? Doing this was easier said than done, but I needed to be ready for opening night. Me as I was now simply would not do. I hugged myself in the corner for a while. It helped a bit. Then I got up and went back to work, reentering the world of the play. I knew I was less stable than normal and was absolutely careful to stay in control of my sword throughout the sword fight. Since I was used to a larger space, I still crashed into the empty front row and then the lights. I was shaken by that, but it was good to know I didn't have the physical space to do that anymore. That's what dress rehearsals are for.

After the rehearsal I was still stressed. I sat dejected in a seat, listening to the directors speak. My mom arrived and gave me food. She asked if I was alright, but there wasn't really anything to say right then; I could tell her about all that later. I said I was fine, but she knew better and gave me a massage. Moms are awesome people.

I ate my dinner and immediately some life began to come back into me. That, coupled with having had some time to sort through everything, gave me the ability to put all my excess energy into the pre-show warmups and finally into the show itself.

The next day, we did our matinee and our closing show. I still didn't feel almost normal until approaching, during and after our closing show. I finally felt in cohesion with the rest of my friends, and we worked well together. The last show was also a roaring success; the sword fight was pretty much perfect (except I stabbed my foot once on accident) and I threw every ounce of energy I had into absorbing myself into the world of the play and feeling the plight of my character. I was turned up as high as I could go, and despite a sleepless night I believe I lived up to the challenges I set out for myself. Backstage, the Ghost and I exchanged a high five and an exhilarated smile as we finished our song, which we had done perfectly. After the show was done, I exchanged smiles, high fives and hugs with many of the cast. We were all so happy; congratulations and praise raced around.

I can't help but admire the cast of people I worked with this last spring. We had two weeks to do Hamlet, a longer harder play than any we had done before, and we pulled it off better than we had any other performance before. I especially appreciated the amount of cohesion with which I was able to work with Hamlet on the sword scene, the Ghost on the music, and King Claudius on the scenes in which we were together. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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