H2016: What’s His Weapon?

FoilsEtcLots to talk about, but I’m going in circles with a lot of different production issues right now. I’m about two months away from the next phase of rehearsals — full cast, regular schedule, no more dabbling and philosophizing, down to business — and it feels as if I should start prioritizing.

When I teach Play Production, I use the word “Spectacle” as an acronym and mnemonic: Set, Props, Environment, Costumes, Thespians, Audio, Choreography, Lighting, Effects. All of these are important in a big show like Hamlet, and so far, only one of them is settled — Environment (as in, we know what theatre we’re performing it in). A few of my main thespians are in place, of course. And I’ve made a lot of unilateral decisions about props and costumes, along with some ideas to discuss with designers for lighting and audio. Thus far this summer, when I’ve had the time to spare, I’ve been thinking about special effects, particularly how video projections can help to foreground the themes and motifs that excite me in the play.

But what about choreography? To me, the term doesn’t merely refer to dance; it encompasses other types of stage choreography too, most significantly (for Hamlet) fight choreography. As any good director knows, stage combat needs to be choreographed early and rehearsed often. And, for safety reasons, it needs to be overseen by a qualified and experienced fight director. In Cape Breton, we have a few directors with fight experience (myself included), but no one who is accredited. I’ve been in negotiation with a fight director from the mainland, but it’s a big job to do over a long commute.

Complicating the challenge is the nature of combat in Hamlet. There are a number of scenes that could feature scuffles or minor violence, including the potential for sexually charged violence (as in the Nunnery scene, or the Closet scene). For the most part, these scenes are open-ended and subject to directorial interpretation. Personally, I would love to see a very physical production, and to take advantage of any chance for an onstage scrap; but I am also willing to scale my expectations back if we run out of time.

The exception is, of course, the duel in Act 5, Scene 2. It’s not just the play’s climax; it’s arguably the most famous bit of stage combat in history. Anyone who knows the play will be looking forward to it as either a capstone in a successful production, or else a last-minute redemption for a disappointing show. Either way, the placement and importance of the duel convey to the director, in mile-high neon letters, do not sell this short.

And it’s an incredibly finicky fight. Shakespeare needs it to go a very specific way, both for the sake of the plot and for the dramatic crescendo which the duel represents. Claudius, Hamlet’s nemesis, is not a participant, and yet the duel seems to boil over into a fracas that engulfs him, with Gertrude caught in the crossfire. You’re choreographing a stately duel that erupts into a massacre. Does it happen suddenly, or by degrees? What are the movements? Suddenly it is a dance, or even an entire symphony — although it’s one that involves the real risk of bodily harm to the performers. If you want your orchestra to play The 1812 Overture, you don’t throw the cannons in at the last minute, and tell the operators to just “fire them off whenever.”

Shakespeare’s stage directions start out ambiguous, as they usually are: “They play,” he writes three times, to signify the three rounds of the fight. But then we get this verbose set of instructions: “LAERTES wounds HAMLET; then in scuffling, they change rapiers, and HAMLET wounds LAERTES.” Some directors and scholars wonder if the fight he’s describing would even be possible. How do they exchange rapiers in a plausible and visible fashion? How and why does Hamlet keep fighting after he’s been wounded? Why does the court say nothing during this sequence?

RapierAndDaggerEven the word “rapier” gives some scholars pause. Earlier, Hamlet asks Osric (about Laertes), “What’s his weapon?” and Osric responds, “Rapier and dagger.” Presumably this was an established style of dueling, but does that mean that both of the actors should be wielding two weapons throughout the duel? And what about modern dress productions who choose to use contemporary fencing foils, or other types of blade? Foils, sabres, and epees generally look the same onstage, although their style of combat differs; but none of them really read onstage, at least not compared to broadswords. Is there room for stylistic interpretation, or should one stick to the stage directions as closely as possible?

When I was in my twenties, I played Laertes in an amateur production of Hamlet. We were using fencing foils. Before the duel began, my acting partner and I were supposed to make eye contact, as a way of checking in with each other. One night (or afternoon — it was an matinee, and in a stiflingly hot tent in midsummer), when I struck my pose before the fight, I realized that my foil’s hilt was tangled up in a string attached to my belt. I needed both hands to untangle it, but my free hand was already up in its fencing pose. I sought out Hamlet’s eyes, trying my best to convey panic and hesitation — don’t start yet! But Hamlet didn’t notice, and he began the duel without me. His choreography faltered immediately, since my sword couldn’t meet his. In desperation, I stepped aside and stuck him with the foil as he passed by me. In effect, I skipped the first three movements of the bout, and went straight to the poisoning.

I don’t know whether the audience was disappointed, or if they even noticed. But for me, it was a lesson not only about the need for safety in all stage fights. It was also a lesson about simplicity. Even though it may be tempting to get fancy with your fights, especially when you’re dealing with a fight as famous as this one, it pays to keep things simple. That way, if something does go wrong, your actors don’t need to panic, trying to salvage a dozen or more steps of a fight. They should be able to tell the story in as few moves as possible — safely, confidently, directly.


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