Hamlet In Pieces

The Secrets Of Acting Shakespeare
By Louis Fantasia

Bookstore and library shelves are groaning under the weight of all the
Shakespeare books that have appeared lately. In addition to the usual
critical editions and scholarly tomes, there have been a recent spate of
frivolous books on Shakespeare's jokes, Shakespeare on golf and cats, or
Shakespeare's business maxims. In between the sublime and the ridiculous
lies a third stream of writing, chatty, yet based in scholarship, geared to a theatre-going, if not theatre-practising reader. Two new books, Andy Lavender's HAMLET IN PIECES and Patrick Tucker's THE SECRETS OF ACTING SHAKESPEARE, THE ORIGINAL APPROACH are two such books.

Lavender and Tucker lay claim to totally different "Shakespeares." Lavender
documents the rarefied world of post-modern production, specifically, three
Hamlets produced (and in two cases, starring) icons of the international
theatre community:: Peter Brook, Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage. For
these three directors Hamlet is no longer a text to interpret, but rather a
"pre-text" for reinterpretation. The play, with its iconic and canonic status, possesses "several resonant post-modern fancies...: a refusal of closure, a taste for mind games, a liking for play and a penchant for metaphor rather than literalism" that make it a prime target for de-construction.

Lavender documents the rehearsal processes of Brook, Lepage and Wilson,
beginning with Brook's Paris workshop of Qui Est La, a meditation on theatre and threatricalism that included not only snippets from the play, but quotes and exercises based on the works of several major Twentieth Century directors, including Brecht, Stanislavski, Artaud, Meyerhold, Gordon Craig and Zeami Motikoyo, the medieval Japanese Noh master. Lavender is, as is much of the theatrical world, in awe of Brook, not only because, when, shaking his hand at a first meeting, he realizes that "the hand you are shaking has shaken then hands of Barrault, Brecht, Craig and Grotowsk...", but also because of Brook's disciplined approach to his craft.

Brook demands of himself and his actors, over and over, that they question
what they are looking for in a text: "When you do a play, what is it that
you actually want to appear? What do you want to bring to life? If there is
an end, it is obviously not just putting on a play."

For Lepage and Wilson, that just might indeed be the end. In the body of
their work as directors, as well as in the two Hamlet pieces in which they
appear as "solo" performers (the term in each case is somewhat spurious,
given the numerous collaborators and assistants, as well as the huge
financial and technical support their productions demand), are much more
captivated by the physical and mechanical aspects of putting on a play
than is Brook, with his Zen-like, ascetic playing space.

Lepage, for his Elsinore, builds, or rather has constructed, a massive
monolith, a disc that can rotate, rise and become a variety of backgrounds
with which to interact. Wilson, in Hamlet: A Monologue, constructs (or,
again, has constructed for him) a "Craigian" pile of rocks which diminishes
throughout the evening. Wilson, like Lepage, is better known for his
direction than his acting, and they both allow themselves (or the British
actor Peter Darling, who eventually replaced Lepage) to become puppets
in their own constructs.

Lavender spends a lot of time, perhaps, too much time, detailing the
rehearsal processes of the three uber-directors, but he does succeed in
showing us how culture is made on an international scale. These are works (including the final chapter on Brook's Hamlet, which he staged several
years after the Qui Est La workshop) for "high culture consumers and
cognoscenti," (what I call the "art-in-black" crowd) who already know (and
are probably bored by) the play, and who "are in the market for Shakespeare-made-strange." The plays' financial success depends on festival directors and booking managers who can sell futures in the brand names of Brook, Wilson and Lepage, let alone Shakespeare, on the world's cultural exchange, like so many hog bellies or bushels of wheat, to be gobbled up
by a privileged cultural elite.

Despite Lavender's sharp eye (and occasionally sharp tongue) and the
brilliance of the three men at work, the book leaves us with the vaguely sad feeling that all this time, talent and effort will never a reach a large, popular audience; that these artists are working in an increasingly irrelevant art form.

Director Patrick Tucker has no Boswell like Lavender to document his work
with the Original Shakespeare Company, his London-based ensemble, so he
has taken the task on himself. Tucker, originally trained as a scientist before
launching a successful directing career in theatre and television in England, reports on his findings in a detailed (too detailed, really) way, providing us with all we want to know about what he does.

Now, what does he do? Patrick, whom I know and like personally, is a firm
believer in the validity of the 1623 First Folio as an acting text, and of "cue scripts" (where the actor only has his part and the word or two that cues him in) as the way to gain insights into acting Shakespeare. Tucker argues, passionately and with wit, for faithfully following the playwright's intentions, which he claims can be found by close, nay, scientific, scrutiny of clues and tips embedded in the text. And there is method in his madness.

If you only have your part, you, the actor, have to be fully focused and alert on stage, totally present, so yes, scene work, and even one or two performances of a play done this way, brings a kind of energy that you might not get after six weeks (let alone several months) of tinkering with the texts. (Of course, the freshness goes away after several performances in a modern theatre). And, yes, Shakespeare did give plenty of staging clues within the texts of his plays, but these can be found through careful reading of the whole play as well. And his admonition not to trust to editors, as a comparative reading of several editions of any one play will prove, is well founded. But, here's the rub.

I believe, that if Shakespeare had had indoor plumbing (perhaps not post-modern plumbing) he would have used it. There is value in interpretation, in examining variant critical options, and, yes, in rehearsing. Patrick's method seems to stop one step short of actually interpreting the plays, as if "doing it as Shakespeare liked it", a) could be proven, and b) justifies the sometimes amateurish results his method gets (a respected teacher, Tucker uses many current and former students in his work). While his book is hardly easy going (too many productions and workshops given in too much detail), it does contain tips for the actor or acting student looking for a fresh and challenging
insight into Shakespeare's plays. Besides, given the prevailing cultural winds
today, just daring to assume that we can infer what Shakespeare intended,
makes Tucker's a book worth looking at on those over-crowded shelves.