Actors From The London Stage to recreate ‘Hamlet’ for local audience, share ‘magic, power’ of Bard’s words
Perhaps more than any other Shakespearean play, the words of the tragedy “Hamlet” have survived the centuries and become part of our daily conversations: This above all: to thine own self be true. To be, or not to be: That is the question. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
When Actors From The London Stage perform “Hamlet” at East Tennessee State University Oct. 25-27, The Bard’s timeless words will be in the spotlight. “Our company’s aim is to make his words exert their magic and their power in performance, but we do this in a vital, and perhaps unconventional, way,” says Peter Holland, McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies and associate dean for the arts at University of Notre Dame, home base for Actors From The London Stage in the U.S.
“We have no massive sets to tower over the performers and no directorial concept to tower over the text of Shakespeare’s play. In fact, AFTLS does not have a director at all, instead, the play has been rehearsed by the actors, working together to create theatre, cooperating with each other in their imaginative engagement with the play’s words.”
As a result, sets and costumes will be minimal for the three performances in ETSU’s Bud Frank Theatre, Thursday and Friday, Oct. 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 27, at 3 p.m., and timeless texts and creative modes of communicating them will take the fore.
“And that’s great, because it’s such an amazing story,” says Grace Andrews, who portrays Ophelia and five other characters in the troupe’s fall performances of the royal tragedy. “It’s so multi-layered, and to make it accessible is a challenge because the language is so rich and complex. But, that’s what we’re trying to do and I think we’re getting there.”
Actor From The London Stage resides with the Shakespeare at Notre Dame program, then travels for each semester – in troupes of five actors per show – providing residencies and performances at schools such as ETSU for a week apiece. This fall, AFTLS have been at University of Texas at Austin and San Antonio, San Jose State, University of Florida and will be at Wellesley College and Lake Superior State University, as well as ETSU, before the holidays.
During their six days at ETSU, the five actors will work with classes from Literature & Language, Theatre & Dance, Communication Studies, Storytelling and the Honors College – sharing their expertise and training, gained on London stages such as Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as well as their interpretations of The Bard’s still-vibrant verbiage.
“This kind of residency, is not something that we typically do, but it’s such a great experience for us,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of event-sponsor the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU, “to have such a well-known group with well-trained actors come to campus, not only to share their experiences with our students, but also enable the rest of us to see some great performances.”
Regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest works, “Hamlet” – a story of murder, revenge and, ultimately, madness – continues to resonate with audiences some 400 years after it was originally produced, says AFTLS founding director Sir Patrick Stewart of stage and screen fame, and these actors bring a unique “personal connection with dramatic texts which is distinctive and different from the scholars.”
While actors can no longer collaborate directly with Shakespeare, all theatre is collaborative, Holland says, and this company always aims “to work with [Shakespeare], respectfully and creatively, throughout the rehearsal process … working together to create theatre, cooperating with each other in their imaginative engagement with the play’s words.”
Four hundred years can create quite a barrier and distance between script and audience. “What Actors from the London Stage does is it tells the story to be heard today,” Andrews says. “I always start with, ‘How do I make this language, which might feel a million miles away from who I am, how do I make it come from me, from a place of truth?’ So, that’s were my work starts, and ends really.”
Not only does the interpretation take study and reflection, but portraying multiple parts often results in an athletic ballet that stretches the actors’ skills and ingenuity and the audience members’ imaginations. “I play Ophelia and Laertes, a brother and sister, and that’s a challenge for sure,” Andrews says, “but it’s also a rich kind of game for the audience, and it sort of tells the story of a relationship in a different way, which I think is quite interesting. It’s definitely a fun – and challenging – part of the job.”
The San Antonio Paisano newspaper gives AFTLS’ virtuosity rave reviews: “The acting … was exceptional, amazing, electric. The choreography was creative; the timing superb; the stage never static, every moment as precise and sacred as a ballet.”
Artists in this residency and production are Andrews as Ophelia/Bernardo/Laertes/Guildenstern/2nd Player/Sailor; Peter Bray as Polonius/1st Player/1st Gravedigger/Priest/Osric; Ben Eagle as Ghost/Francisco/Claudius/Reynaldo/2nd Gravedigger; Madeleine Hyland as Hamlet/Marcellus/Fortinbras; and Wendy Morgan as Horatio/Gertrude/Rosencrantz.
Despite the distance in years and country of origin and tangled webs of plot and characterization, “Hamlet” is still relatable, Andrews says, because Prince Hamlet was a student of life, still learning how to navigate amid “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
“What is brilliant about Hamlet, is that [Shakespeare] writes about being a human, but also being a student with brutal honesty,” she says. “Regardless of whether you’re from Tennessee or San Jose or London, if you’ve ever felt misunderstood, if you’ve ever been in love, or if you’ve ever lost that love – if you’ve ever felt a sense of betrayal or if you’ve ever had dreams that have shifted, if you know what it is to have strong men in your family, if you know what feels like not to be listened to – all of this is in ‘Hamlet.’ The characters struggle and wrestle throughout the play with these issues …
“I guess ‘Hamlet’ is done again and again because the people within it are so endlessly fascinating and can be so applicable to today in their areas of success, and in their hearts. We keep it fresh. That’s our jobs, really: to keep it fresh.”
Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors 60+ and $5 for students of any age with ID.
For more information about Actors From The London Stage, visit shakespeare.nd.edu/AFTLS.
For information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). Follow the Martin School of the Arts @artsatetsu and on Facebook.