Thursday, 13 September 2012

Swimming against the tide...

I discovered something while I was rehearsing and performing all my roles in Hamlet over the summer (I played, in order, Barnado, Laertes, Guildenstern, Captain).  Not particularly profound but certainly very useful.  I discovered that the best time to go over my lines was when I was swimming.  This served two purposes very well.  First of all it stopped me laboriously counting each lane swum, mentally calculating how many more I had to swim before I had done enough (I liked to reach at least 50 if I could) whilst taking my mind completely off the chore-element of swimming which always predominates for me, at least until the endorphins kick in..  It also served as a great way of going over lines without any distractions apart from the odd splash and the occasional glance awry (when I realised that I was actually saying my lines out loud and attracting attention..)

I got in the pool and the first length was filled with my preparatory thoughts of setting props and costumes, working out where I should be and ensuring pre-show checks were done.  On the turn of Lane One, I was into the lines.."Who's there?" "He" "Tis now struck twelve, get thee to bed, Francisco" and so on.  Needless to say, I didnt go through everyone else's lines, just stuck to my cues.  This took about 35 - 40 mins (depending on whether I needed to go over anything I'd forgotten or got muddled with).  I estimated that was about 50-60 lengths.  Result.  Fit, and rehearsed.  Great stuff.  Last lane, final lines.."Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father's death fall not on thee, nor mine on thee." thus dies Laertes, as my hand reaches for the rail at the end of the pool.

But Hamlet, no show, no need to have the lines ready to hand.  But yet I still persist in going through them when I swim.  The timing is just right, my mind is suitably distracted from the physical temptation of giving up, and those lovely lines (Oh, heat dry up my brains, tears seven times salt burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye...Lay her in the earth and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring...) are still in my bones, still sing through my brain and I am still Laertes, Barnado, Captain, and the hapless Guildenstern.....

....I just can't quite give it up...

Monday, 28 May 2012

Taking Hamlet to Stratford..

Is this the best case of coals to Newcastle?!  Melting Pot is delighted, nay, overjoyed to announce that we shall be bringing Hamlet to the Dirty Duck in Stratford, on Sunday July 22nd at 4pm.  And we are performing outside on the beautiful garden terrace.  We decided on the 4pm start to enable folk to enjoy the town and river, have a spot of lunch before getting a drink in and settling down for a trip to Elsinore.  Tickets are £5 and available on the door.  We are also in high-powered talks (well, not that high-powered!) to bring Hamlet to the Station in Kings Heath in July - dates to be finalised.  We love performing this production so much and want as many people as possible to see it, to share our excitement and infatuation with the text and action.  Forgive the exuberance!  but I am excited...

The interesting part starts here..we have two new venues to which we have to adapt the staging (although we have already adapted it to three venues) and then we have to make sure we all remember the lines and's like riding a bike, isnt it?  mmmnm, perhaps a penny farthing, in full crinolines, in high summer...! It is going to be fun to see if our month 'off' will have subtly altered anyone's interpretation.  Come and join us, lets keep it rolling on.....!!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

blowing our own trumpet or 'respeaking earthly thunder'

Phew!  well, here we are, on the other side of 5 phenomenal performances.  We had some challenges to adapt Elsinore to the intimate venue of the Lamp in Digbeth but we worked hard, concentrated and turned a pub back room into battlements and castle for the night.  Each night we played, our audiences watched and listened.  We made them work,and for two and a half hours their imagination and concentration transformed the space and by the end of the evening they were fellow Danes.....we have plans to schedule more dates in after a short break, not least because the audience members we spoke to urged us to ensure more people saw us.  I owe the cast and audience a little space to show their responses but before I do, I am going to risk sounding a little fey and pretentious...(what's new, I hear you ask!)....I can honestly say it has been a fabulous honour to serve that magnificent text and to approach, from however far and misty a distance, the mind of one of the world’s greatest human beings, to share, over the reach of 400 years, his thoughts and observations so beautifully and seemingly effortlessly expressed.

What people have said...

What a privilege it was to be in the audience last night for the performance of Hamlet.

A really excellent production for all sorts of reasons. The pace was perfect allowing real understanding of the language & subtleties of the plot, mixed with moments of thoughtful calm & absolutely manic outpourings. The light & shade in the production & the performances was superb, and the time flew by. I can honestly say it was the first time I really got what this play is all about (that includes performances by Brannagh & Anton Lesser) & it was truly riveting, perhaps partly due to the intimacy of the setting which created an intimacy & involvement that drew in the audience and which combined with the power & honesty of the performances.  I must congratulate Mat in particular for his willingness to look the audience in the eye & involve us in his thought processes...(..)...If ever there was an actor & a part that were made for each other this was it. I loved the quiet, reflective & resigned periods, moving through self doubt & meditative passages, mixed with those utterly electrifying moments of frantic, desperate, mad & wild rants. A tour de force.
A great ensemble & some super individual performances. 

Many congratulations to all – you deserve great praise for putting together such a superb production which will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to see it.

I hope you get the chance to perform it again!

and...(excerpt from Behind The Arras review by Gary Longden) please visit his page to see his very detailed review..

Therefore the challenge is either to produce the greatest performance  of Hamlet of all time, or to reinvent the staging. The smart choice is to go for the latter, which is what Melting Pot wisely decided to do. And if ever there was a play which Behind the Arras should be reviewing, it is Hamlet!
So, what was the twist? The full dramatis personae tops twenty players, Melting Pot managed with seven, comprising five women and two men. All male characters other than Hamlet and King Claudius  (and the ghost) were played by women. As in the setting, this was a device which echoed the practicalities of theatre in Elizabethan times.Companies, through economy, used men and women to play the opposite gender. Plays in which actors were playing the opposite sex, and whose roles were playing parts of the opposite sex, was a common theatrical device used to comic effect.
Scenery was nil, props minimal and costumes functional, but all very effective. Lighting was just two white light spots. It worked. No distractions, just the players and the play. The overall costuming was unisex black,boots, trousers and shirts for all. It is to the company’s enormous credit that the women who were playing male and female roles did not seek to establish gender by slipping on/ taking off  a skirt or shift dress. Instead they acted their gender, and did it very well.

I'm sorry it's too late to recommend this production to others. Excellent. Thank you very much. If and when you can, revive it and tour - audience member on last night.

Massive congrats and thanks to Amanda Bonnick, Jenny Stokes, Janet Bright, Philip Ward, Susan Doran , Matthew Brockington & the lovely Holly Jeffery of the Melting Pot Theatre Company for a superb performance of 'Hamlet' last night at the Lamp. I'm no critic or expert on Shakespeare but I know exhilarating theatre when I see it:) 
General audience reaction –
Very understandable, very accessible, saw David Tennant, saw Kenneth Branagh, yours was better!  pacy, interesting, wholly absorbing, great to be so up close, everyone involved so focussed, incredibly convincing, first experience of Shakespeare for my 12 year old son – he was totally captivated.
Enough of the luvvie-dom!  You get the point!  I have to admit, I am still going over my lines every day..I have left a part of my heart in Elsinore and will have to go back to get it...

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Can beauty have better commerce than with honesty?

This post is slightly different from the others and links in with the publication of Fiona Robyn's book 'The Most Beautiful Thing.'  this is what it is about - Today I'm taking part in the My Most Beautiful Thing Blogsplash to celebrate beautiful things - inspired by Fiona Robyn's new novel, The Most Beautiful Thing. Bloggers from all over the world are taking part and writing or posting pictures of their most beautiful things today. Find out more here and see everyone else's blog posts here.

Now you may think it strange, but it does connect with Melting Pot's production of Hamlet.  There is that moment when, waiting in the dark at the side of the stage, heart beating, head going over and over the first line (once that line comes the rest flows like a river), mouth dry, costume hot and uncomfortable, hear your cue, look up and see the actor next to you move to take their place on the stage.  You move together, almost one creature, both lost in the dynamics and rhythmics of the play.  There is that moment when you are on stage, lines are coming fluently, you suddenly realise where you are, how much you rely on the actor opposite coming in at just the right time, moving to just the right spot and your brain is working on at least five levels -1. what's my next word 2. where's the prop I need in 2 pages time 3. I wonder if the bar will stay open after. 4. how are we going to pick up the daffodils Ophelia just threw all over the stage. 5.  I wonder if I put enough change in the parking machine- all the while the action continues.  This is what it is to be most thoroughly alive.  This is what it is to feel completely in the present.  You fluffed your last line?  forget it.  The audience has, and if you let it worry you, you'll spoil your lines now.  You are someone else and you are yourself.  You have licence to act completely differently to normal, if only for 2 and a half hours.  

Think back two months...all there was, was a rehearsal schedule, a cast, a script and an illimitless well of faith...setback after setback, cast members dropping out, venues not available, no budget, no energy, family and work intruding and yet we kept on...even at the end things went awry but we overcame and, even more than that, turned setbacks into triumphs.  And now the play is in our bones, each one of us.  I hear the words in ordinary everyday speech and cannot forbear to quote, and I know the rest of the cast feels the same.  And this is beautiful.

Monday, 23 April 2012

the play's the thing!

We're 3 performances down with 2 to go in Birmingham next weekend (28th and 29th at the Lamp, Barford Street) and we are buzzing!  It has certainly been a challenge (especially when our venue for Friday changed at the last minute from the Arthouse to The Bradbury Centre - ironically proving our most popular night in Worcester) what with getting the lights rigged at the start and taken down at the end, props packed away, and costumes taken home every night, never mind actually performing!  it is a full on play at the best of times but when there is only 7 of you, with no wing space to hide in, having to concentrate for the whole time - well, it consumes your whole being!  I think I can talk for each cast member when I say we are living, eating and breathing Hamlet....Audiences have been very appreciative but I shall forbear to quote the responses here - we still have performances to go and I don't want to jinx them!!! come and see for yourself - we'd love to see you in Elsinore, on the battlements, waiting in the 'nipping and eager air' for the coming of the ghost....

Friday, 13 April 2012

Look, my lord, it comes...

Well, it's approaching and the final details are falling into place!  We have publicity going on (check out Worcester News, The Standard and BBC Hereford and Worcester on Monday 16th) and the cast are 'getting in the zone'.  But there is still time for musing on its meaning.....

The play is full of contradictions. Just one obvious example - Horatio is supposed to be Hamlet’s best mate, and knows all about current Danish politics which he explains at some length in the first scene. A couple of scenes later, though, Hamlet doesn’t recognise him at first, and is surprised to see him in Denmark at all. Later Hamlet has to explain details of Danish life to him as if he was a first-time visitor.

There are plenty of other contradictions, many in the character of Hamlet himself. And the language is still complex and layered. But that is part of the beauty of it. A lot of very clever literary people have used a lot of ink trying to explain what Shakespeare was getting at, and much of it has been inflicted on students at school at one time or another. Questions like is Hamlet really mad, has he got a complex about his mother, is the ghost real, how old is Hamlet, did the Queen know about the murder, and why does Horatio appear not to know what’s going on, simply cannot be answered because the play doesn’t actually provide any information to do so. What it does do, though, is to give us some sense – sometimes as a result of the obscurity and contradictions in the language – of people struggling with the same bewildering conflicts around questions like the possibility of life after death, what is the basis of moral behaviour, what’s the right thing to do in a tricky situation, as we do now – oh, and of course, love, death, swordfighting and ideally a bit with a dog.

In the end the reason we and so many others keep doing Shakespeare is not because it’s great or beautiful poetry, or even because it’s great drama that works brilliantly on stage, nor the fact that it’s hugely entertaining and you don’t have to pay for the rights to perform it, though these are all good and valid reasons. In the end it’s because Shakespeare’s plays tend to tell us that four hundred years ago people were as fascinated by the questions of what is the right way to live and behave, how to deal with people who do bad things and cause suffering to others, and what does it all mean anyway, as we are now – and had, actually, similar responses.

Finally, a couple of technical points which we hope will help. One - Hamlet is famous for featuring a duel towards the end. However, it’s not possible to use real swords in a confined space. Not only is it very far from safe, but it’s often not realised that you need a certain headroom for a four-foot rapier. So we’ve taken a different approach. Two - there just isn’t a bit with a dog. Sorry.

Friday, 6 April 2012


Let’s face it, Shakespeare’s language can be difficult. Some of Shakey’s words have changed meanings, some are no longer in use at all.

It’s not just that Shakespeare had the formal you and the informal thou (rather like the French still have vous and tu, where we democratic Brits have got rid of all that).  There are other more subtle changes as well. For example, the word presently, as in “Do it presently”, now sounds like a rather old-fashioned way of saying “Do it later”. In Shakespeare’s time, though, it meant “do it now, immediately”, and is frequently used by Shakespeare to convey a sense of great urgency.

The word “terrific” meant not “jolly good” but terrifying. “Wonderful” is another interesting one. At one point in the play a character asks Hamlet “What news?” and he replies “Oh, wonderful”. To our ears that sounds rather like a sarcastic rejoinder meaning “nothing worth talking about” but in Shakespeare’s time it meant “inspiring wonder or awe” – so something very shocking. As for “awesome” – well, we’ve all probably overused the word awesome at one time or another. Language changes not so much from generation to generation but from school-year to school-year, so it’s amazing (astonishing, surprising, awesome) that Shakespeare is as understandable as it is. But there is no denying that some of it is difficult or obscure.

We’ve cut most of the more obscure writing.  The full text of the play if acted runs to about four and a half hours anyway, so we had to cut fairly drastically. Another feature of Shakespeare’s writing is repetition – the Elizabethan stage had no scenery (rather as we don’t) so pictures were created by painting with words. We’ve kept some of this – we aren’t using scenery either - but we have cut quite a lot of it. So our version runs for about half that time. We are proud that, although we have cut some text, we have kept all the characters (especially when there are only seven actors!).  It was certainly a challenge as to what to cut.  We are very aware that Shakespeare-buffs and Hamlet-aficionados may have difficulties with what we have left out (or kept in!) - we shall let you, our audience, be the judge.  We look forward to hearing your opinion at the bar afterwards - and if we had done the full 4 and a half hour version, there would be no time for post-show drinking!  not that that was a consideration.....