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AFTLS’ ‘Hamlet’ strips production to basics

Observer Scene | Monday, September 18, 2006

As the Actors from the London Stage lined up on stage this past weekend, sans costume and quickly calling off the multiple parts they played, it was clear this wasn’t the production most people imagine when they think of “Hamlet.” There would be no large sets, elaborate costumes or any great distance between the audience and the performers. Instead there would a fundamental and strong production of what could arguably be called Shakespeare’s most famous play.

AFTLS aims to simplify its productions of Shakespeare in order to present his plays as close to the originals as possible. The stage has no set. In fact actors who are not currently performing do not even leave the stage, but instead sit in chairs at the back. There are also very few props – swords are gloves and shovels are mimed. The actors wear basic, functional, modern clothing and simply add a small piece or prop to indicate the character (for example, Horatio always wears a striped scarf.).

There is only one sound effect throughout the entire show, and it’s achieved by an unoccupied actor in the back, not by the sound system. Instead, the cast makes the rest of the environment themselves. The breaks between scenes are not marked by the dimming of lights, but instead the actors whisper lines in concert.

AFTLS also limits the number of actors it uses. “Hamlet” may include over twenty-five roles, ranging from Hamlet himself to the sailor that delivers letters, but the company has only five actors. This adds several elements to the play. Sometimes it is humorous. There are times when actors must address themselves. Sometimes it adds depth to the play. The primarily off-stage character Fortinbras is often considered one of Hamlet’s strongest foils and the two parts are played by the same actor.

The cast does its best to involve the audience as much as they can. They take advantage of Washington Hall’s thrust stage as characters walk straight onto the stage from the audience. The main lights are left fairly high. It is as easy to see your fellow audience members as the actors.

The actors nearly always face out to the audience instead of in to themselves. This makes the encounter between Hamlet and the ghost of his father particularly strong – both characters face the audience straight on. Finally, the actors crack the fourth wall and address the audience directly. All this allows the audience a more active participation in the events unfolding on stage – they are not simply watching action pass in front of them.

While AFTLS does try to remain true to the original spirit of the text, the group also adds in its own interpretations and comedy. One cannot help but laugh at the fact that the infamous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by the same actor, or chuckle when Ophelia mocks her father by finishing his famous speech to Laertes with him. Even Polonius continuously interrupting Claudius as he attempts to kiss Gertrude benefits from this added humor. The cast’s own take on the comedy combined with Shakespeare’s original wit create a fluid, comical performance that exceeds the average expectations for the work.

Occasionally, the oversimplification of the play tests the limits of its audience. There are some walls the audience needs help over, but in general it creates a wonderful approach.

With so many productions of “Hamlet” available, it is relieving to know that there is one that is left so uncomplicated that the actors can have a conversation with their audience, leaving Shakespeare’s actual work to rise above it.