Actors from the London Stage bring ‘Hamlet’ to Notre Dame
Dessi Gomez | Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Silence floods Washington Hall as the group, Actors From the London Stage, prepares to perform its rendition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The five actors and actresses introduce themselves and identify their roles in the production, telltale props and costumes strewn across the stage. Upon completion of this introduction, the actors take their seats, signaling the start of the play.
Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS) was established by Professor Homer Swander from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and British actor Patrick Stewart in 1975. The five members of the company are selected through a standard casting process that involves both auditions and callbacks in London. After going off-book within a month, they are allotted 6 1/2 weeks to construct the entire production. This process not only includes numerous rehearsals, but also the procurement of a large number of props and costumes.
AFTLS kicked off its two-month Fall 2018 tour of “Hamlet,” in which an actress plays the traditionally male character of Hamlet, at Notre Dame from Sept. 10 to 16.
“The play is all about the death of intimacy in our closest relationships: mother to son, father to daughter, brother to sister, husband to wife and friend to friend” says member of the group Grace Andrews. “They are all slowly and systematically destroyed by the end of the play, which is why it’s such a huge tragedy.”
This pervasive destruction throughout the play stems from the first encounter with the ghost of King Hamlet, the titular character’s father. Sharp lighting and artificially produced wind transport the audience to a cold, dark early morning. The use of the spotlights to highlight the faces of Horatio and the guards creates the feeling of a ghost story, which soon becomes reality with the appearance of a terrifyingly tall and imposing ghost portrayed by actor Ben Eagle. Eagle also plays the dead King Hamlet and Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother who is also the new king.
“[Claudius] is stereotypically the villain of the piece,” Eagle says. “But the more I play with him, the more I want him to just be a normal bloke who may have made a mistake.”
Eagle adds to this perspective with his opinion that King Hamlet isn’t the cleanest-cut character, either. He questions the goodness of the ghost, emphasizing tension between these two roles.
“It’s throwing up all sorts of issues as to what a villain is, and if that’s even something that should be thought about,” Eagle says.
A simple, yet effective, pattern of clapping transitions the play between its individual scenes and acts. They are eerie transitions that set the scene for a completely off-putting atmosphere of merriment that characterizes Act 1, Scene 2.
In this scene, Eagle crafts a clever Claudius who dominates the stage with his booming speech and grand gestures. This scene also introduces Queen Gertrude, played by Wendy Morgan; Laertes and Ophelia, both played by Grace Andrews; and Polonius, played by Peter Bray.
“[My] difficulty would be with Gertrude because she doesn’t have, as a lot of the others do, soliloquy, where you get to see how she feels and who she is,” Morgan says. “She’s quite a difficult character to unlock.”
Andrews skillfully transitions between Laertes and Ophelia with a red leather jacket and a white lace sash, respectively. She captures the regality and bravery of Laertes as well as the grace and naivete of Ophelia.
“It’s one of the rare relationships where there’s tenderness and family love and protective nurturing love,” Andrews says. “And so to get that kind of sibling relationship with just talking to myself has been tricky, but it is an amazing opportunity to be able to try and fill this relationship from both sides.”
Though he grapples with his understanding of Polonius’ character, Bray successfully inserts Polonius’ presence into the play. He makes light of his constantly changing grasp of Polonius by admiring the process as well as the help from his fellow actors.
“You constantly evolve stage-by-stage, and you reach a new understanding about one part and then you realize how much you don’t know about another part,” Bray says. “That’s what I’m finding with Polonius.”
Bray shines in his favorite role of First Gravedigger, eliciting laughter from the audience with ease. He balances out Hamlet’s gravity with comedy.
“I’m intrigued by this sense of divide within [Hamlet],” says Madeleine Hyland, who plays Hamlet. “He’s forced to confront who he really is and what makes up his character and what his values are.”
Hyland identifies most strongly with her character’s hatred of hypocrisy. She realizes that he stands at a crossroads, and she manifests this conflict through powerful soliloquy and punctuated pacing.
“Playing it and getting inside the skin of those questions is really interesting and intense and makes you think a lot about who we are and what we’re doing,” Hyland says. “And if there’s something you feel like you really have to do, what stops you from doing it or what spurs you on to do it?”
The props and costumes serve an important role in differentiating characters and holding their place when actors jump between roles so frequently. The actors get one extra suitcase, “the showcase,” in which to stow these articles, which further highlights the personality of each one of them. Hyland knitted the rainbow scarf that Andrews wears as a player when she was 8 years old.
“Everyone is operating with a lot of layers of day-to-day masks that they carry around, and it’s rare that they are shed and you see the heart of the person,” Andrews says. “[Hamlet] makes you check yourself about what masks you’re carrying around.”