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AFTLS brings singular “Hamlet” to campus

Michelle Fordice | Monday, September 18, 2006

Ghosts have long haunted the realm of the theater, but none so famously as the Ghost in “Hamlet.”

“Hamlet,” performed by the Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS), draws the audience into theater in its purest form. Now in its 13th year, the AFTLS represents one of the oldest and most well organized Shakespeare troupes in the world. Not only do their actors have a diverse , experience-laden background – sporting such accolades as degrees from Oxford, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, roles in Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions and even a semi-professional rugby player – but they also embody the essence of a traveling troupe.

While the company tours in America each semester, the actors are in constant flux – some are returning, some are new, all are very qualified. Each production brings together a unique combination of people through a common love for William Shakespeare’s work.

While in the United States, the AFTLS visits colleges and universities that include Notre Dame, Wellesley, the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina. Not only do the Actors put on a show, but they visit classrooms, attend lectures and give workshops as well. These lectures typically aim to help students better connect with and gain a depth of understanding of Shakespeare’s work. They prove knowledgeable in their domains and have a good rapport with students. These actors are not just playing the roles – they are living the art.

AFTLS has performed in two different venues at Notre Dame – both the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Leighton Concert Hall and Washington Hall. Although still organized through the DPAC, the AFTLS performs in Washington Hall this week. Students might not be as dazzled by Washington as they are by Leighton’s new-fangled technology, but it is really a far better stage for AFTLS. Because Washington’s seating is so much more compact, it is easier for the actors to interact with their audience – it is this interaction that allows Shakespeare’s plays to come into their truest form. The fourth wall that typically exists in other plays is supposed to be frequently interrupted by the actors – they jest with the audience, play off the audience’s emotions and many of the characters’ monologues are meant to provoke the audience to intense thought.

The thrust stage is one of the reasons this fourth wall is so easily broken, both in Washington Hall and historically. Though far from a mirror image of a theater like the renowned Globe, Washington Hall’s stage is more than sufficient. It would be a more accurate picture if the seats on the floor level were taken out and crowded in were a mosh-pit of plebeians. But perhaps a room packed with scruffy, tired college students is close enough.

Actors from the London Stage is a small troupe. Despite the fact that “Hamlet” sports 26 separate roles, AFTLS uses only five actors. Geoffery Beevers (Polonius), Anna Northam (Gertrude, Ophelia), Robert Mountford (Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern), Richard Stacy (Hamlet) and Terence Wilton (Claudius, Ghost) shift from role to role with ease. One of the primary goals of the AFTLS is to reflect Shakespeare’s original company, The Lord Chamberlain’s and then The King’s Men, which is a very worthy cause in the present day.

So much of Shakespeare’s work has been remolded to quell a stubbornly close-minded audience. Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo DeCaprio and Claire Danes, is just one example of this unfortunate trend. Watered-down versions of Shakespeare’s works rarely do justice to the works of the arguably best playwright to have ever lived. As a result, his witticisms and poignant commentary on the human condition are frequently overlooked and under appreciated.

The AFTLS further emphasizes Shakespeare’s text by minimizing the presence of distractions. The stage in Washington Hall is completely without backdrops and costumes. The actors and actress wear simple, versatile clothing and have only a few props to indicate a change in character (e.g. Ophelia always carries a white scarf while Gertrude – played by the same actress – carries nothing).

This is an extremely unusual experience for the typical American audience. Most have never seen a Shakespearean play without elaborate costumes. Most companies imitate a Franco Zefferelli style of costuming, with a montage of colors accompanied by expensive sets and props.

Like the loss of Shakespeare’s original text, the overstimulation of the audience through ornate period costuming is also unfortunate. In avoiding this, the AFTLS accent their ability to differentiate characters by their acting skills rather than a change of costume, and this makes the audience more aware of the differences in how Shakespeare tailored speaking styles uniquely to each character.

The AFTLS visits campus each semester, always to sell-out crowds. Recent performances include: “Romeo and Juliet” (Spring 2004), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Fall 2004), “Othello” (Spring 2005), “Twelfth Night” (Fall 2005) and “The Merchant of Venice” (Spring 2006). Notre Dame can look forward to the performance of “Macbeth” in Fall 2007.

“Hamlet” is funny, tragic and entertaining. The text is so engaging that the lack of set is practically unnoticed and even allows the viewer to laugh at the text for the sake of itself. In another brilliant move, AFTLS does not have a director for any of their productions. Each production is self-directed by the actors and so there is no possibility of the play being “owned” by any one person. It remains, as it was in Shakespeare’s day, a product of a community of actors.