CELEBRATING THE BARD: Rowena Hutson on playing Hamlet
We have mused on The Bard and now that Season One is airing, we are Celebrating The Bard! This is a series where we asked each of our ensemble members to write down some background on why they wanted to do the piece they did, how they feel it relates to modern life, what challenges and/or choices they faced and why and any other information that would be of interest to you, the audience. Director, Sally McLean, also shares some thoughts on the process from her perspective to give views from both sides of the camera. Each “Celebrating The Bard” piece will be published the Friday after the ensemble member’s episode has aired.
CELEBRATING THE BARD – ROWENA HUTSON ON PLAYING HAMLET
When Sally first approached me about joining Shakespeare Republic, I was midway through a hectic and and deeply personal performance season at Adelaide Fringe. I was performing a solo show that I had written. A tragi-comedy about a girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut who is left behind on Earth when humans abandon it for Mars. In essence it’s about following your dreams no matter where they take you. ‘Til death do you (and your dreams) part, as it were.
It was written in response to a moment in my life where I felt my dreams falling away from my fingertips and as crazy and silly as the (obviously fictional) show was, I still felt pretty vulnerable sharing the story. It was also the first time I had ever written something for the stage, in such a way that I was actually The Playwright. I mean, I had performed solo shows that I had ostensibly ‘written’ before, but they were silent comedies. The kind of Buster Keaton / Charlie Chaplin type of physical riots where you have an idea, you play in a room and work out how you’ll do it and then you just jot it down and go from there. The script essentially ends up just being a list of actions with notes so your tech can press play on the music at the right time. My space show was different. This was me telling a story that made me feel vulnerable, whilst also coming out publicly and saying: “Look at me! I’m a writer!”. It was blindingly, dizzingly exciting whilst also being panic-inducing and terrifying.
So when I got Sally’s first email about the project my first thought was: Oh fiiiiinally! A project I don’t have to care so much about. It’s not mine. It’s her’s. I’ll just be a supporter. It sounds like heaven.
Then a week after I got home from Adelaide, Sally met me for a coffee and proposed the whole project to me properly. And that’s when I realised that a) the idea was brilliant and I was hooked and b) this project was going to be exactly the same. Blindingly, dizzingly exciting and panic-inducing and terrifying.
Because I’m a Shakespeare nerd. I have always loved the poetry, romance and utter stupidity of Shakespeare. I have loved his villains as much as his heroes. Swooned over Orsino, marveled at at the complex skulduggery of Richard III and desperately hoped someone would cast me as the hilarious Hermia. But theatre is really different to film. In the theatre world I can be anyone. But on film it’s a different story. So no one casting a film looks at me with my crazy hair, my slightly startling face and unequivocally small stature and thinks: Here’s our comedy herione! Or; Here’s our tragic hero. No one looks at me and thinks: Here’s someone who can understand classical text; Or – There’s a face I want to see on film. No one thinks these things about me because my physical theatre training and my outside of the box looks make me an unusual and ‘risky’ casting. All of which I am fully aware of and totally realistic about. I get it. And it’s ok.
But being offered the chance to play with my favourite playwright, and revisit and push my skills as a film actor was too good an opportunity to miss, whilst also being a genuinely scary proposition. The stakes are always high with Shakespeare, and putting myself out of my comfort zone on film makes them higher.
Which brings me (finally) to why I chose to dive straight into the deep end and kick my Shakespeare adventure off with the world’s most famous speech: Hamlet’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ monologue. I chose Hamlet because his wry humour, bright wit and depth of emotional reality is so utterly compelling. It is what makes the role the ultimate benchmark for any actor of my age. But he is (funnily enough) generally reserved as a part for the boys. Yet here was Sally allowing me to cast myself as the Prince, whilst also letting me give the speech my own creative twist. This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, and as my previous experiences had taught me – you have to grab those dream jobs with both hands and just run with them. No matter how vulnerable or scary it feels or how outrageous or how many times you think you’ve bitten off more Shakespeare than you can chew. Because if you’re not living your dreams, you should at the very least be chasing them. Otherwise, what on earth are we here for?! Chasing our dreams gives us everything to play for and absolutely nothing to lose.
So I bit the bullet. Said yes to a dream job and claimed my right to play the Prince. I hope my little Astronaut girl would be proud.
HAMLET IN A MODERN CONTEXT:
It’s funny how many people know the opening lines of Hamlet’s speech without knowing what it is actually about. But it is still the world’s most famous speech not just because its’ opening lines have been parodied a thousand times, or appeared on a billion t-shirts, but because it deals with a subject matter we are still struggling to comprehend three hundred and something years after Will first wrote it.
In short it’s about Death. It’s about death and the one certainty we can ever have in life other than death itself. And that is – we will never, ever, no matter how hard we try – know what comes after death until it’s too late for us to tell anyone. And that absence, that inability to peer through the darkness, to see our future beyond the span of our physical life, is really scary. It’s what keeps us shackled to our mortal frame, as Will might have put it on an off day. And so Hamlet’s speech, for all it’s beautiful, beguiling, self-deprecating humour, is actually about defeat. The defeat of the natural human desire to end our suffering when it becomes too much for us to bear and enjoy an endless, peaceful sleep (of death) because we are too afraid to do anything about it. Life, as it turns out, for all it’s shortcomings is better than nothingness. Is better than an unknowable blank.
And I think we can still relate to that. I know I certainly can. As we were preparing to film this, Sally and I spoke about moments in our lives when heartbreak and suffering, either our own or of those around us, had made us feel lost. The times it felt like we were being swallowed by the overwhelming enormity of it all. That enormity that makes us feel small and alone and helpless. And for all our advances in this modern age, and perhaps enhanced by our love of technology which puts us in touch with the world but not physically in touch with those we love, we can all still have those moments or days or weeks or sometimes years where we feel cast adrift.
Those times where we feel life and all its’ inherent messiness is holding onto us by only the tiniest, gossamer thread and if we just had the courage to pull every so slightly against it, it would break and we would be free to float away forever. It is in a way, a dangerously seductive thought. Until we remember the scary unknowable notion of the blankness that follows. Which is why I have always loved Hamlet’s utterly human discussion about these ideas, and his heartbreaking self-aware humour that makes him both love and disdain himself for being strong enough to resist the seduction and yet coward enough to be afraid of it. I think we all, at one time or another find ourselves in Hamlet’s shoes.
So I honestly think he speaks for all of us when he (or she, in our case) asks the ultimate question. But I have also always felt strongly that Hamlet ends the speech with a glimmer of hope, with a wry spark that sees his shortcomings and takes ownership of them. So when we find ourselves down and out like the Prince, I also hope we all find in ourselves a similar spark.
In the same way I think Hamlet’s speech is philosophically relevant to our times, I also think it slips perfectly into a modern interpretation. In our version, Hamlet finds herself drowning under the weight of her responsibilities and failures. Surely we have all felt like this? And what do we feel like doing at these moments? Like an injured cat, we crawl back under our homes (or our blankets) to quietly wait to see if we die under the weight of it all, and if we don’t, we emerge days later, fragile and raw but somehow intrinsically stronger.
This, the crawling under the house bit, is the moment in which we meet my Hamlet. The beginning of that end.
I would like to think we captured her humanity. Her real need to reach out and talk to someone close. To roll out all the thoughts in her head so that they do “lose the name of action”, and instead, become purged, allowing them to gurgle away down the drain with all the other flotsam. Sally and I talked about where we go when we need to escape from the world, when we need to hit reset and just quietly be for awhile before facing reality. For me that place has long been the bath. It’s a place where you can be simultaneously vulnerable and safe. A place where you can close the door on the world and just let your brain float away. Or you can let the warmth of the water seep into your skin and numb your frantic thoughts into silence.
Wherever your place is, the space where you seek sanctuary, I hope you can see that reflected in what you see on the screen. That you feel the echoes of your own thoughts mirrored in Hamlet’s and recognise in yourself her ultimate flash of hope and spark of humour that says “I am down, but I am not out”.
CELEBRATING THE BARD – SALLY McLEAN ON DIRECTING HAMLET
I have little more to add to Rowena’s beautiful explanation for her choices and why we set her piece the way we have, other than to say, once again, that working with an actor of such curiosity, passion and discipline was utter bliss.
I thought of Rowena for this project due to a conversation we’d had many years ago when travelling together in an eventful car trip to attend a Shakespeare workshop with the late, great and beautiful Peter Oysten. I had met Rowena while she was stage managing a show in the Royal Botanic Gardens (yes, she is a woman of many talents) and we had got talking about our love of acting and, in particular, the Bard. Watching her play with the Bard’s works over those handful of sessions under Peter’s skillful touch was a revelation. She is good. Very good indeed.
A shared history of having studied in London (she at Rose Bruford College, me at The Actors’ Institute) and the work ethics and thorough training we had both received as a result, bonded us further and as a result of all these circumstances, she was always at the front of my mind as someone to contact if I ever got around to playing with the works of the Bard. In fact, I believe I told her that at the time, and I like to keep my promises!
So you can imagine my delight when contacting her, years later, about just such a project that her immediate answer to my query was “Yes!”. I had kept tabs on what Rowena was doing and was (still am) delighted to see that her one woman shows were garnering such acclaim and interest from both the industry and wider public. I almost didn’t contact her because I was concerned that she would be too booked up to come work with us – but, fate sometimes steps in and makes everything line up, and that’s what happened here, for which I am so grateful.
When Rowena suggested that she’d like to play this piece in a bath (for the reasons she’s outlined above), I can tell you I had a moment of slight panic. How would we film in a bath? Where would we find one? Would we use bubble bath? Do bubbles make noise? (The answer to that last question is “yes”, as it turns out). But at the same time I understood what Rowena was going for from a character perspective and I will confess that the visual image of her in a bath playing Hamlet appealed to me enormously. To most of us, baths are sanctuaries, but also luxuries. In a crazy world where we barely have time to run around under a shower at the beginning of our day, baths have come to symbolize places to stop time. To think. To be.
They can also be dangerous places, unfortunately. Water symbolizes life, rebirth, but can also symbolize death. Sadly some who feel they can’t take the “whips and scorns” of life anymore have been known to end theirs … in a bath. It provided a fascinating grouping of symbols and themes. So naturally I said “yes” in turn.
I knew that this would be a challenging episode for me to direct for many reasons. Both Rowena and I knew that we had to remain true to what Shakespeare wrote and the context in which he set it, but also make it our own. And I like to think that having Ophelia suddenly appear in the bathroom at the end of this speech – if we were actually doing the full play – would work and still make sense – a private moment interrupted.
The next most important thing once setting was established was to find the right place to film it. We needed somewhere that would suit a modern Prince, but be ours for the length of the shoot. The idea of hotel rooms and other such thoughts came up, discussed among the Producers and were dismissed. Then, one of my fabulous friends, who is an amazing Creative in her own right, Samantha Barrett Brown, provided the solution and generously allowed us into her home for the day to film. (We’re still talking, if anyone is wondering!). It meant travelling out of town, but I’m sure you’ll agree – it was worth it. It was a beautiful room and the perfect setting.
Sam’s talented son, Charlie also came to the party as our behind the scenes Director of Photography and I can’t wait to show everyone his amazing work next week! And I have to say that filming in such a warm, welcoming and “safe” space, made it so much easier for me to play with this material. Thank you Sam, I could not have done it without your support. Rowena was a champ and spent god knows how many hours immersed in water and the crew were just beautiful in the way they took care of her and me and did amazing work in their own right.
WHY THAT ENDING?
While the main piece became pretty straightforward, the end tag for this (the vision that appears after the credits) presented the quandary of too many choices. I have actually got two alternate endings edited because I wasn’t sure how best to twist it. For me, setting Hamlet’s speech in a bath – a small body of water, akin to a pond – with a female Hamlet, had distinct Ophelia connections. And I loved that idea of male/female duality. There was much discussion around what Hamlet would be wearing in the bath – would she be naked? Wear a dress? We eventually settled on having her in her underwear (although that isn’t completely clear from the version we have released). I quite liked the idea of Hamlet not being naked and felt that getting in the bath partially dressed was a nod to Hamlet choosing to appear to be mad, when, in fact, she’s not – “Though this be madness, there be method in’t” – as well as to the kind of overwhelm we can all feel at certain times when even taking off stockings is just too much work. I also loved the idea of Hamlet being an everyman AND everywoman in this piece via the nods to both Hamlet and Ophelia. For me, the discarding of female clothing at the end also shows a discarding of “gender” in this situation. We are all human and we all experience these kind of feelings – which is why Shakespeare is so universal.
Maybe I was directing the full play in my head with all these thoughts, but that’s pretty much the way I have directed all these pieces. They are all moments in time that hopefully dropped back into the play will still make sense (minus the end tags, which are our modern twists).
In light of the subject matter of this episode, I’d like to finish this piece with a message to you, our viewers and readers from one who knows:
To all those who are doing it tough, facing massive obstacles that feel insurmountable, or just feeling low but don’t know why – it’s okay. You’re okay. We all have those moments, days, weeks or years. You are not alone and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Reach out. To family, to friends, to qualified strangers who will listen and help. And trust that a brighter, better day is coming. Because it is – you just can’t see it yet. But reach out and hold on, because eventually, you will.
If anyone needs any kind of support, advice or just wants to talk to someone who will listen, we recommend Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline here in Australia.
See Rowena’s episode below. Just click the red Play button: