H2016: Rapier and Dagger

Duel_MissouriIt’s been too long since my last post, and plenty has been happening — so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in a month’s time, when I actually have a full cast and start rehearsing in earnest. I am still committed to the principle of a regular show blog. I’m just not really sure where I’m going to find the time.

But right now, it’s summer, and my schedule is somewhat more flexible. It’s what enabled me to drive five hours to Wolfville, Nova Scotia to meet with Robert Seale, our fight choreographer. Robert teaches at Acadia University, and has the most jaw-dropping fight credentials east of Stratford. It’s a privilege to have him on board, and a miracle that he’s willing to drive to Cape Breton repeatedly throughout fall and winter in order to make Hamlet kick ass.

The script of Hamlet has three obvious moments of onstage violence: Hamlet stabbing Polonius (3.4), Hamlet and Laertes wrestling near (or, just as often, in) Ophelia’s grave (5.1), and of course the duel between Hamlet and Laertes (5.2), which is virtually 3 or 4 fight scenes rolled into one. Then there are intimations of violence, like Hamlet’s line to Gertrude, “Come, come and sit you down; you shall not budge” (3.4.17), and non-violent scenes which still need careful choreography because weapons are in play (Laertes’s sword in 4.5, or Marcellus’s “partisan” in 1.1). Overall, it’s not nearly as violent a play as your Richard III or Macbeth, but it’s got plenty to preoccupy a director.

And naturally, in my ambitious masochism, I’ve made plans to add totally invented fights, too. For instance, I’ve always felt the tension between Hamlet and his old friends Rosencrantz & Guildenstern finds its anti-climax after they march him away from Elsinore and onto a boat for England. The offstage deaths of R&G are so unremarkable, in fact, that there’s a play, a movie, and a weird cult spin-off about them. I feel like if these two strange, cult-celebrity henchmen deserve that much off-stage fame, they also deserve some onstage brutality. Having them die in Hamlet’s presence, and potentially at his hands, ups the stakes for our Prince, too.

Some of these ambitious plans will be curtailed, of course, but there’s no way I can avoid the duel. It may be the most iconic stage fight in Western theatre — and despite what graph-based theory your high school teachers tried to spin you, it’s unquestionably the climax of the play. In fact, for a long time, when I heard the word “climactic,” my mind immediately went to Act 5, Scene 2 of Hamlet. And this was in high school! I was a weird kid.

Robert and I discussed different weapon options and decided to go with the rapier and dagger pairing that the script alludes to in 5.2. The extra, shorter weapon ties into a motif I have in mind of “vengeance daggers” — but that’s a scheme for another time. For now, here’s a glimpse at the beat-by-beat plan for Hamlet 2016‘s climactic duel:

  1. A fierce first bout, both men trying to show off their skill. HAMLET scores the first hit.
  2. Bout Number 2: more cautious, this time, so a longer set. HAMLET uses some obstacles on the stage (blocks, risers, gravestones) to trip up LAERTES, and get the hit in.
  3. After HAMLET taunts him, LAERTES presses furiously, backing HAMLET against a wall. HAMLET tricks him (a kick? A kiss??) to get away.
  4. At OSCRIC’s line, HAMLET lets his guard down. LAERTES strikes from behind. HAMLET is enraged.
  5. They lock hilts. HAMLET trips LAERTES, and they both fall, swords clattering out of their hands.
  6. HAMLET picks them both up, then tosses one back to LAERTES. LAERTES’s reaction tells us that it’s the wrong sword.
  7. HAMLET’s attack is fierce, LAERTES is terrified, on the defensive. They might take the fight right into the court, forcing GERTRUDE (and others) to stand up.
  8. The wounding of LAERTES can be almost an afterthought – it happens while the court is reacting to GERTRUDE. But LAERTES shows us he’s been hit.

After I typed it up, I realized it bears a heavy resemblance to the Zeffirelli film version. But what else is new? I never realized how much of that version stuck in my mind, becoming inextricable from the play itself. I guess you always remember your first.

Climax.

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