H2016: Closet Work

Hamlet (David Tennant) and Gertrude (Penny Downie) in RSC’s Hamlet (2009).

So much has happened in rehearsals, it’s not possible for me to catch up at this point. My Hamlet blog obviously hasn’t been a priority, although I’ve been able to dip back into previous posts from time to time, not only for my own reference but to help others get a quick(er) handle on what I’m trying to create. So far, everybody on the team seems 100% on board. Even if they don’t see the big vision as clearly as I do, they trust that I can see it.

Their trust is not misplaced, but it is naive. The fact is, I’m deep into the rabbit hole at this point, and the pace of rehearsals is such that it’s been weeks since I’ve been able to step back and see the big picture. We’ve got over half of the play blocked, and we’re into that breakneck middle section (what, in the original play, corresponds to Act 3 and the first half of Act 4) where something catastrophic seems to happen every damn scene. I doubt I’ll have many chances to breathe until the end of November, when we begin stumbling through the entire play.

On Tuesday, we blocked most of the scene I’ve probably been dreading the most: 3.4, or the “closet” scene, so named because it probably occurs in Gertrude’s “closet,” or private chambers. And Gertrude has been the source of my dread, pretty much — as I’ve said before, I’ve never seen a completely satisfying take on the character, and while I’ve had a few conversations with Kayla, who’s playing the Queen, she hasn’t been around for as long as my Hamlet, Claudius, or Ophelia, so Gertrude is still a new and tentative creation for us. And yet, when we hit this scene, there’s no going back; Gertrude has to take shape, or the scene won’t work.

I needn’t have worried. Kayla is a pro, and she and Wesley clicked immediately, embracing the scene’s adrenaline-fueled energy and emotional high stakes. Our take on Gertrude is decidedly unconventional, requiring a number of quick decisions and turns in the scene; Kayla sniffed them out and had them pinned down in no time.

Wesley also had a Herculean task, in that my concept for the scene involves him playing not Hamlet, per se, but Gertrude’s perception of Hamlet. The same goes for several other scenes, which are staged from other characters’ points of view. But this is the scene where Wesley really has to commit to acting insane, because that’s how Gertrude sees him. Asking an actor to play “crazy” is a mistake, but we found a way to navigate those murky waters to that, by the end of the day, Wesley could talk coherently about his choices, but from an outsider’s perspective, his behaviour still seems erratic and irrational. That’s the best I can hope for.

There are still a few more players to add to the scene — for example John, who is playing Polonius, will have to reconcile to getting stabbed and then spending 5-10 minutes dead on stage — but working through the broad strokes with Hamlet and Gertrude first should give the supporting characters lots to hang their performances upon.


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