H2016: Favourite Moments, Mousetrap Edition

Yesterday, Sheila (my beloved wife and stage manager) explained to her class that a show needs three things to succeed: talent, a unifying concept, and a gimmick. This was a formula I’d never heard before, and naturally I asked her if Hamlet had all three of those things. She said yes (what else could she say?), at which point the obvious follow-up question was, “What’s our gimmick?”

“Oh, the dance,” She replied.

She was referring to “The Mousetrap,” which is much, much more than just a dance. In fact, it’s probably the most complex five minutes of theatre I’ve ever been responsible for creating — or overseeing, really, since a lot of its essential components were created by Cape Breton’s most talented designers, choreographers, and videographers. It is a multi-media masterpiece in miniature, and yet it was one of the elements of the show about which I knew the least when I started planning the production one year ago.

In case you don’t know: “The Mousetrap” (aka “The Murder of Gonzago”) is a play-within-a-play which Hamlet arranges to stage in front of Claudius. According to the set-up (near the end of 2.2), Hamlet himself adds “some dozen or sixteen lines” to an existing script in order to make it more closely resemble Claudius’s murder of Hamlet, Sr. (we don’t know which lines they are, or even if we get to hear them before the play gets interrupted. But boy oh boy, do scholars love to make hay of the fact that Shakespeare’s greatest character is, himself, a playwright).

Near as we can tell, the resulting play is a three-hander between an elderly and ailing King, his adoring Queen, and Lucianus, the king’s nephew, who “poisons him in the garden for his estate” and “gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.” Shakespeare made the lines of the play deliberately archaic and stuffy, although modern ears might not detect the difference. We get about 80 lines of dialogue in the original text, plus a brief prologue and a “dumb show” that stages the action silently in advance (a device which would seem to undermine Hamlet’s intent to catch Claudius unawares). In our production, I cut the dumb show and trimmed the dialogue down to about 20 lines, because let’s face it, if the audience doesn’t know this story by now, they’re really not paying attention.

My earliest notes about this scene involved not the Players at all, but Hamlet and Claudius. I was preoccupied with the image of Hamlet shining a flashlight into Claudius’s face during the play — a disarming tactic, to be sure, but also a metaphor for the process of exposure that’s meant to be taking place then and there. From there, I imagined that Claudius would lose composure, grab the flashlight from Hamlet (“Give me some light!”), and nearly crack open his skull with the thing before realizing he was being observed by the entire court. This moment — the near-retaliation against Hamlet — has never played as clearly as I’d hoped, partly because, well, it’s hard to see what’s going on when the only source of illumination onstage is a flashlight.

Because that’s the creative corner I quickly backed myself into: if the flashlight-in-the-face effect is going to work at all, then the rest of the stage will have to be pretty dark. My earliest sketches for the Mousetrap involved Players wearing LED-suits, so they could provide their own source of illumination which didn’t weaken the flashlight effect. I pictured them doing some highly abstract, avant-garde interpretation of courtship and murder, moving as ghostly, glowing bodies in a dark part of the stage (or, for a while, I thought they might move amongst the audience).

The problems with this plan were two-fold. First, LED costumes are expensive, and nobody local had the first clue how to make them. Second, once we’d settled on a period for the show (the 1920s), flashlights still worked fine, but LED suits would have been a jarring anachronism. I needed something more in line with the overall look and feel of Hamlet, but which could still stand apart — something of the world of the play, but not exactly in it.

The solution didn’t come until I held general auditions in September. One of the auditioners, a young man from India named Aravind, moved around the stage with the bold precision of a Charlie Chaplin or a Buster Keaton — silent film stars who knew they had to convey everything with their bodies. Since talkies didn’t take over Hollywood until 1929, the silent film aesthetic fit right in to my intended setting; I cast Aravind as Player 3 (the murderer Lucianus), and set about finding two dancers who could portray the King and Queen — not through an avant-garde interpretation, but using dance styles popular in the ’20s.

A tremendous number of creative decisions spiraled out from that single decision — so much so that I don’t think Aravind realizes quite how much his audition influenced the direction of the show. Our choreographer, Cynthia Vokey, coached the three Players (Aravind, Raychelle Doue, and Chris Mkandewire) on the foxtrot, the waltz, and the charleston; meanwhile, Baillie our makeup designer researched the styles of makeup used to make Hollywood’s most famous faces appear luminous upon the silver screen. The Players’ costumes evolved partly from collaboration with Baillie’s unorthodox colour scheme, and partly through the necessities imposed by the dance numbers; they ended up being some of Bradley Murphy’s most striking costumes, definitely connoting 1920s but in a deliberately gaudy and off-kilter way. Sheila and I pre-recorded the lines to “The Mousetrap,” with an old-timey phonograph-style effect on our voices, so that the Players wouldn’t have to talk and dance at the same time, and we synchronized our deliveries to some Jelly Roll Morton jazz tunes, whose upbeat flavour makes for a delicious contrast to the dark world of the play.

However, I still had a lighting challenge to overcome if I was going to keep my flashlight effect. All that impressive dancing needed to be seen, of course, and one spotlight wouldn’t be enough. I’d already been planning to use video projections to establish locations and during scene transitions, and I’d started to run into trouble because the light from the video projector was competing with stage lighting, resulting in a washed-out effect. Gradually, it dawned on me that the Mousetrap was the perfect opportunity to use video projections as stage lighting — and to bring home the 1920s/silent film aesthetic in a big way.

Less than a month ago, my videographer Michael MacDonald and I set up a blue screen and recorded the Players, in full costume and makeup, posing in a series of one- or two-person closeups that evoked expressionistic films from the period — The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were all inspirations for me. The idea was to edit together a short film that told the story of “The Mousetrap” in broad visual terms — a lot like the “dumb show” which I cut, now that I think about it — and then project the image of the Players onto the Players themselves to provide illumination on an otherwise dark stage. Originally, I thought we’d use a very narrow projection area, so as to exclude the other characters onstage, but that didn’t work for several reasons. For one thing, the stage floor upon which the actors dance is black, so it functions very poorly as a projection screen. But the set itself is light grey, and it picks up projected images rather nicely.

After a lot of hectic tweaks and adjustments, we arrived at a solution. The video is now projected across the entire stage, transforming it instantly from castle to screen. The close-up images of the Players, much larger than life, glide across the entire cast of characters as they sit watching the dancers downstage. Periodically, the screen goes dark, and a smaller screen (up on one of the set pieces) provides a silent film-style card, with messages like “A love to last forever — a love to out-last death?” or, simply, “Mischief!!!” At the end of the film, the Players’ faces are replaced with images of writhing snakes which make the whole stage come alive in a very unsettling way. And then, of course, just before the ultimate confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius, the projector cuts out, leaving only the flashlight, as originally intended.

So many different design elements — set, costumes, makeup, video, dance, audio, music, props — all firing at once. The effect is dazzling and dizzying: an experimental film in 3-D, or a dance that somehow mushrooms out to take over the entire theatre. It’s captivating, because, like Claudius, the audience shouldn’t be able to tear themselves away; but at the same time, it’s disturbing because, like Hamlet, you feel like you’re missing something if you don’t watch closely. And throughout, there is a mounting sense of dread and imminent catastrophe — the play’s the thing that provokes the murderous wrath of the king.

I’m proud of it. I think Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able to make head or toe of it — and maybe my audience can’t, either. But my theatrical mandate has always been to show the audience something they’ve never seen before, and in this case there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve succeeded.

P.S. We’re getting photos of the show taken on Sunday, so I’ll pop back here next week and post a few images from the sequence I’m describing. They won’t do it justice, but it’s better than nothing.

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