Ham and Sharp: In the Wings with a Grounded Director

Kevin-Spacey5This post is not about Hamlet. Not really. But it’s about Shakespeare, and theatre, and especially my own co-dependency with same.

Last night I watched a documentary called Now: In the Wings on a World Stage. The subject is a 2011 world tour of Bridge Theatre’s production of Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey. Actually, Spacey produced and distributed the documentary himself, which might come across as self-promotion, except the focus isn’t so much Spacey, or even Richard, but the theatre experience itself.

Spacey says, “We’ve made this film for all those people who ask why the theatre means so much to us and to all actors. We’ve made this film to try to answer those questions.” And so we get brief fragmented interviews with all 20 cast members — British and American, veterans and greenhorns — about what the experience means to them. True, a lot of their responses heap praise back onto Spacey and/or Mendes; but they are also reacting to the sheer magnitude of what they’re doing: 200 performances over 10 months in four continents, including some of the most incredible performance venues in the world.

It’s a trip, in more ways than one. Workaday actors from Manhattan who have never performed outside their home town suddenly find themselves transplanted to Greece, Beijing, and Doha. Brits and Americans find common ground through Shakespeare, and through the magic of theatre, etc. One actor reveals his fight with breast cancer, saying that one year ago, he didn’t know if he was going to live or die, and now here he is, walking along the Great Wall of China on his day off.

There was something a bit forced about all of it, but that’s to be expected; these are actors, and there’s a camera pointing at them, so they’re going to adopt a persona that reflects people’s expectations of the actor’s experience. Spacey seems the most down-to-earth of them all; when he goes onstage, he says, he doesn’t “become” Richard Plantagenet; he just brings whatever he’s got that day, and that’s how Richard turns out. (Easy for the star of the show to say, I expect.) But Spacey also seems aware of the fact that his supporting cast is not accustomed to the level of comfort they’re receiving on this trip. He spoils them regularly, buying them yacht excursions or SUV desert racing trips. At the end of the tour, he gives them all bobbleheads modeled to resemble them, in costume. He’s a good dad.

I agreed with many of the cast’s observations about the electrical, ephemeral nature of live performance — about how you give it your all, every time, because you know it’s going to be over before you can blink. But I have never had the privilege of performing in the Old Vic or the Amphitheatre of Delphi, and I never will, so what do I know?

I guess it should be reassuring that I can relate to what they’re describing, even given the vast gap between our experiences. It means that, in theory, a small-budget community production of Hamlet in Cape Breton should have the same chances of generating that magic as a blockbuster behemoth like Mendes’s Richard III. And I know that all starts with the director, their vision, and the energy they bring to the rehearsal hall. If I can convince a room full of Shakespeare noobs that what they’re doing is sublime, then they will pass some of that sublimity on to their audiences. And my work will be done.

The only problem is envy. I can’t help watching actors jet-setting around the world, doing Shakespeare for audiences of 2,000 people, and wondering why I’m not with them? Is it just because I’m not from Great Britain or New York? Or was there some turning point, some choice I made in my career, that steered me away from that kind of experience? I very nearly did an MA through the University of Exeter that would have involved practicum work in Shakespeare’s Globe. I turned that down to come work in Cape Breton, instead. If I’d chosen the other road equally less traveled, would I still be out there, in London, within that Wooden O? Or would I just be back in Canada, with an MA but no job? Which path leads to my very own bobblehead?

Hamlet struggles with some of these quandaries as he searches for the perfect opportunity to avenge his father’s death. Ultimately, he gives up searching for the one key moment, and seems to accept that every moment holds its own intrinsic value:

…there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

Ironically or not, he gets his opportunity for vengeance shortly after he seems to give up searching. Maybe we can all learn from that — hopefully, without getting stabbed and poisoned in the process.

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