To be or … what was that again? With their dense, poetic language, multiple plots and complex characters, Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging to follow, let alone fully appreciate.
So it’s heartening to report that, on its tour of England and continental Europe last year, the Globe Theatre production of Hamlet — which UCSB’s Arts & Lectures will bring to Campbell Hall next week — had even weather-weary audiences entranced.
“Sometimes we’d be performing outdoors, it’d be pouring rain, and they’d stay to the bitter end,” said Tom Lawrence, a key member of the eight-person cast. “We’d end up applauding them!”
“The most common response I’ve received is it’s the most clear production of Hamlet they’ve ever seen. They understood it better than they ever have. In the U.K. in recent years, there has been a fashion for concept-heavy productions. This is a much simpler rendering of the story. It allows you to connect more with the characters.”
Those who saw the Globe’s delightful Comedy of Errors at Campbell Hall last November will have some idea what they’re in for with Hamlet, which alights at UCSB November 8-9. The plays couldn’t be more different, but the basic idea of the production is the same.
“It’s a fairly simple convention,” said Lawrence, who plays Horatio and several smaller roles. “It harks back to a simpler time. There’s a group of traveling players who can set up wherever they arrive — in a market square, in a field, wherever, and create the world of the play.”
And so they do, with eight actors playing all the roles in a streamlined production that clocks in at about 2:45. The pared-down text is “a combination of the first quarto and the first folio, which is the edition we’re most familiar with,” Lawrence explained. “The first quarto was compiled by actors who were in the first productions of the plays. They tried to remember their lines, and put them down on paper, often inaccurately.”
“It’s quite a crude edition. But they used elements of it, because it’s very concise in parts, and more direct. They’ve taken a few lines and passages from that to make it really move, without losing any of the amazing poetry or incredible language we come expecting to hear.”
If that sounds more rough-and-ready than refined, that’s precisely the intent.
“This production has really grown through the performing of it,” Lawrence said. “There’s a particular energy. By now, we’ve been confronted by so many different challenges that we can do it anywhere, really. It has given the production a visceral quality. There’s a toughness to it. Unlike productions that are very constant and consistent, this is all about adapting to the audience. That comes from the Globe itself [a modern replica of the theater where many of Shakespeare’s plays premiered]. It has such a unique quality to it. The audience is almost all around you 360 degrees. There are a lot of people in quite a small area. The intense energy is really incredible. That’s something we carry with us wherever we go, even when we’re playing in more conventional theater spaces. It’s less about living in the bubble of the play and more about communicating it to the audience.”
In addition, this approach “brings out a lot of the humor in the lines,” he said. “Both Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst, who directed this production, were keen to mine all the humor in the play. If you can create that strong contrast, you feel the tragedy all the more.”
Original music also helps create contrast — and context. “All of us were required to learn different instruments,” Lawrence said. “I play different wooden flutes, which are new to me. [In real life] I play the saxophone, but that was considered to be not quite fitting for this play. There is inventive use of percussive instruments; we also have a fiddle and an accordion. It gives it an Elizabethan flavor, with a rough-and-ready folk-music edge to it, like band musicians in a pub.”
A graduate of the famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Lawrence discovered Hamlet as a teenager, reading the play before he ever saw it onstage. “I was very struck by it,” he recalled. “I was amazed by his ability to articulate thoughts that I had. There was so much Hamlet was going through that I could relate to — all the self-doubt. [Even today] I keep discovering stuff, understanding passages in a deeper way.”
Asked if he wished he, rather than his fellow RADA graduate Michael Benz, was playing the title role, Lawrence demurred.
“I’ve always loved Horatio,” he said. “From when I first came across Hamlet as a kid, I always took to him. In a sense, he’s the most morally grounded character in the play. And he’s the only one that survives it! The relationship he has with Hamlet — the way he loyally stands by him and tries to steer him — I’ve always liked that. It’s a privilege to get to play him this time around.”
Shakespeare’s Globe presents Hamlet at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, November 8, and Friday, November 9, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.