On 23 March, various Hamlet cast members and Associate Director Daniel Raggett stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the production. Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.
[SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.]
Audience member: Who do you think would be the best ruler of Denmark?
David Rintoul: That's a really good question, because Fortinbras is the guy who does take over from Hamlet. And in French, the name ‘Fort’ in ‘bras’ basically means ‘strong in arm’ - the implication is he's a bit of a thug, he's a man of action. Is that what you would want in a ruler? Shakespeare, as always, is asking questions and is playing with your perceptions: ‘Would you rather have a decent if troubled human being like this man, or would you rather have a thug? Maybe a thug is better?’ But he's asking the question, and so you're asking the question, and the question remains, I think, unanswered...
Audience member: How do you think the play deals with time and reality, and what is your character’s perception of reality and time?
Angus Wright: I’ll speak about time - well, from Claudius’s point of view. It's a good question because it is all about Hamlet taking a different time to Claudius, in the beginning, from my perspective; that if only he would hurry up and get over grieving, everything would be fine. And I think Shakespeare is interested in that. That everyone has a different attitude to time. Laertes, for example, is desperate to leave. At the start he’s like ‘and that's it, I can go back to France.’ So I think, as a theme, it’s built into the play.
And I think Robert has taken an attitude to time with the production too. There are moments where time stretches and this whole room is completely silent – we’ve all felt that tonight. It's billed as a long play, and one of things people say is that it doesn't feel [long]. And I think that is how we experience time. When something terrible happens, a car crash, [time] does change. Those sort of events definitely change our perception of time. I think it is all part of the character of the play, and what Shakespeare wrote and what we're doing here tonight.
Luke Thompson: I think also what Shakespeare keeps coming back to in the play, or seems to [come back to], is the idea of what time can do to purpose. I think everyone experiences it on some kind of level, as the Player King says, "Purpose is but the slave to memory."
If something happens and you're ready to go in the moment, the more you wait and the more you let thought come into it, the harder it gets to actually do anything. If you don't act then and there, in the moment, then time will just slowly destroy it and make it disintegrate in front of you. I think that idea keeps coming back, and it's interesting.
Barry Aird: There are also moments where I think Robert, particularly with the Gravedigger scene, wanted that to be almost ‘out’ of time, almost in a different reality. In rehearsals we spoke about that scene being almost dreamlike, set in a slightly different reality from the rest of the play, perhaps in Hamlet’s mind. Time is played with quite a bit like this.
Audience member: The poster for the production is a portrait of Hamlet sleeping in a coffin and with flowers on him. This reminds me of Ophelia…
Andrew Scott: So that photograph was taken ages ago and I think it definitely does mirror the Ophelia story in a way, but it also speaks to the idea of Hamlet as a title for the play - it could be two Hamlets. It could be the father, who has just been laid to rest, or it could be the son. I suppose it's about stepping into somebody's legacy in that sense.
And I think there are a lot of similarities between Ophelia and Hamlet - I think they're kindred spirits. It's one of the greatest tragedies, as far as I can see in the play, that these people are experimented with. I think Jessie [Brown-Findlay] and I both feel that they really do love each other in the play, and they are forced to work out their parents' problems, not theirs, which is very cruel. I’ve found sometimes, in reading the play or having seen the play before, the importance of what their feelings towards each other actually are [is forgotten] and I think there's no tragedy if there's no love.
Audience member: Given everything that's happening in the world - all these borders that are being secured, locking people out who are different from us - do you think that the theatre is still allowing people to come in and be transformed by the things they see and then actually do something about what they see on stage?
Andrew Scott: I think it's really important, specifically for our director Robert, I think it's very important to him that the play is for now. And Shakespeare, in the play, he says it: ‘to show… the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ - it's for now. And I think what we spoke about over and over again in rehearsals - and I think the thing the characters speak about a lot in this production - is the idea of love and compassion. To me, the play is bursting with love and compassion.
And I think because it's such a famous play we kept asking ‘do we think this because this is what we're reading, or is this because of some perceived notion of the play?’ - which happens with very famous characters and very famous plays.
But I think the play is nothing if all of the characters aren't served. And there is no person in the world who, if looking at Claudius or Gertrude or Ophelia or Hamlet, or anyone in the play, could look at them without a degree of compassion and love, and that's what makes it interesting. There aren't these stock villain characters or some moany prince, or some Gravedigger who's just chirpy. Everyone is bringing something. And if you can do that with a degree of empathy, then I think you can understand that everybody is trying, at least, to understand each other and to be, in some way, good. Because we do, as human beings, try and do our best, for the most part.
Jessica Brown Findlay: I think if art in any of its forms stops being brave and shuts itself down, or hangs its head in shame, or starts saying ‘sorry’, or tries to adhere to anything other than the ‘otherness’ of being alive, and stops asking questions and doesn't get scared - if it loses itself to any of that, then I think we're fucked.
It is the only thing that can stretch over everything, and if we look at history, it's always one of the great things that unifies us, and can often be the thing that creates a movement that doesn't stop. And then we look back on that and we listen to the music of the time, or [look at] the plays, or the art, or the people who stood up, and we go ‘thank God for that’ because without it, where would we have been? So I think it's our duty to always stay brave and not fall asleep.
Barry Aird: If it wasn't so powerful, it wouldn't be one of the first things that autocrats automatically try and cut and de-fund.
Audience member: I'm a drama student and wanted to ask you how you learn your lines?
David Rintoul: There's no great rule. I mean, some people are very quick at learning lines. Some people are blessed with photographic memories, so it goes straight in. Other people, it takes ages. I guess most of us are kind of average, but it just takes a long long slog. And we all have different ways of doing it. I write it all out longhand in a particular kind of exercise book. Other people do very different things. But part of the grind of learning lines - and it is a grind - is also a creative process, because you're getting to know the text better and better, and it's going in deeper and deeper.
Audience member: I have a very specific question: for Ophelia's last line, we don't see her face at all. I've seen the show three times now, and love Ophelia so much, and I'm trying to understand why you guys made that decision? I wanted to see her face so badly - it’s like this wonderful kind of frustration that I’m feeling every time!
Jessica Brown Findlay: I've never even thought about the fact that you can't see my face. I guess lots of decisions can be made in terms of how it looks to an audience, but in that moment, for me, it was me wanting to look at all the people around me in my life who had said ‘Go here, say that, be quiet now.’ Ophelia’s spent a lot of her life just wanting to be heard, and there's nothing more maddening than that - to be silenced. And so it was a moment for me to look at them in silence and to go ‘Yeah.’
Angus Wright: Because we, on stage, can see her face - and I think that touches on an answer about how we work. Robert doesn’t go, ‘actually, Jessica, if you were there…’ - it actually happens organically. I think that idea of sharing things with the audience can still be done with your back to the audience. And it may be frustrating if you want to see her face, but it also makes you question what is going on, and those questions are always good - especially in this play, which is all about questions. I think that it's good for actors not to feel that they have to stand in a certain position at a certain angle. That what’s most important is, we [the actors] can see her face.
Audience member: So I'm just wondering, there's no credited dramaturg, and unless I'm mistaken, it seems like there are versions of the text from the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and Folio in there - especially with the Horatio/Gertrude scene that normally is not staged.
Elliot Barnes-Worrell: You did your research!
Audience member: So I’m wondering how did that change your understanding of your characters, and I guess for you, Andrew, would you have felt less ‘Hamlet’ if you had said ‘Aye, there's the point,’ instead of ‘That's the question’?
Andrew Scott: You mean: ‘To be or not to be, aye there’s the point’?
Audience member: Yeah, ‘Aye, there’s the point.’
Andrew Scott: I didn't know that was an option!
Audience member: So to what degree were you all involved in that editing/collating process, and how does that affect your interpretation of your characters?
Elliot Barnes-Worrell: Well, for the Horatio/Gertrude scene - like, otherwise, Horatio has to stand on stage and read a letter from a pirate. That's what happens in one version of the play; that Hamlet jumps off one ship onto another ship, is helped by some pirates, and is brought back to Denmark, which is mad difficult to try and…
In the audition, Robert told me that he’d found this scene in the ‘bad quarto’ which was allegedly written by the guy playing Bernardo. So every scene that Bernardo's in is word perfect. When Bernardo's waiting to go on stage, that scene: pretty good. The scenes that Bernardo's not in at all, it's like, ‘aye there’s the point’ - it's just bullshit!
But there's this magic gem of a scene with Horatio and Gertrude, and it puts Gertrude on Team Hamlet, which I think is so important, because, otherwise, Horatio has no one. He has no family, he's not part of the court, so for him to have an ally in this love for Hamlet is so important - to have that relationship. Relationships define you. So I think Robert was picking and choosing which bits he liked the most to tell his version of Hamlet.
Joshua Higgott: It was also to do with creating a world that felt like it fitted with what we were doing here. I don't think it would have felt right to have a scene about pirates in this context. So there were major changes like that, but we also spent quite a lot of time with each scene. Sometimes we'd find other words here and there from different quartos that just made the play feel a little bit more consistent with the world that we were in. So it was kind of both a macro and a micro thing.
Barry Aird: I also think it's important just to treat Shakespeare like he's a new playwright, not to preserve him in aspic and go ‘We have to do it this one way, and this one way, for all time, and that's it.’
Audience member: Is there any particular modern parallel that you see? It's a very contemporary play - I love the onscreen depictions of war, the sort that we so often pass by when they’re on the news, that we distance ourselves from - are there any particular resonances you think the play draws attention toward?
Amaka Okafor: I actually think it’s very domestic; in a way it's about heart. I feel like it's on quite a cold set. But if you don't care about the relationships between father and daughter, and mother and son, and old relationships, and new relationships, then nobody cares about anyone. And I sort of feel like those are the stories that span all the way through political stories. Because we're just human beings, aren't we? We all have a mother and a father, we've all lost people. We fall in love, some every day, some not so often.
David Rintoul: In terms of relevance, “while, to my shame, I see / the imminent death of twenty thousand men / that for a fantasy and trick of fame / go to their graves like beds.”
Well, you can apply that to, well, have a look at Syria, for example - have a look at so many places in the world where people are manipulated and forced into appalling situations by idiotic people.
Joshua Higgott: I think that also relates to your question about the world, which is: that you can - and you see them endlessly - and we talked about this in rehearsals - you can take almost any Shakespeare play and put it in a specific political setting or time-frame. There was a time where pretty much all of them were set in Iraq. And, actually, what I personally feel is that that's a way to close the plays down rather than open them up. And, actually, I think it's always about asking the questions, and then for you [the audience] to decide where you see the relevance is. That's what makes the plays so much more interesting, and keeps them alive over time, rather than trying to locate them in one particular place.
Luke Thompson: I think you hear it more in the universal things than in specifics, so it's very difficult to go, ‘Oh, that's exactly like that thing on the news.’ But in terms of real people - but also in terms of being trapped in a system, like, I always think of it like the theatre of power - all the human beings in the play are engineered so often by the people in power to suit the power structure and help maintain it. And I think that's true of all kinds of power. You think of how they manage to keep themselves up, and [the play’s] actually about this power structure slowly collapsing in on itself. I mean, that's very general but when the play's so wide-ranging, it's very difficult to find anything that it's not about, to be honest.
Andrew Scott: Well, that's it. This play's such a masterpiece that it covers so much ground. It's astonishing that there's a play about love, and about grief, and about war, and about memory, I mean, any subject. It’s about theatre… It's so far-reaching, the play, that actually to reduce it by drowning it in one particular theme would be a great tragedy. It's like when people talk about the length of the play and say ‘Oh my God, it's three hours and forty minutes’ and you think, well, if you reduce this play, you're not doing the play: you’re literally doing a reduced version of the play. And that would be the real tragedy.
Daniel Raggett: Thank you very much! Sorry to those whose questions I didn't get to put to the company, but thank you for spending the time in the room with us, and for sharing this with us. Thank you very much.
Hamlet runs from 17 February - 15 April 2017 at the Almeida, and transfers to the West End from 9 June - 2 September 2017.