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The Big Role(s)

Enjoyed Judy Newmark’s 8/17 Post-Dispatch column on the “Big” roles, featuring Peter Mayer (now doing Lear) as well as Jason Cannon on his emergency Hamlet performance, Lavonne Byers and others on tackling iconic theatre roles.

Made me think of the opportunity I had to tackle Hamlet. It was born from the fearless early days of The Orthwein Theatre. Specifically, from an Eric Clapton concert. Milt Zoth and I were attending, and at some point in the concert, as we were in periodic conversation about the makeup of the next Orthwein season, I believe I turned to Milt, said, “Why not Hamlet?” He nodded, I nodded back, and we were set.

 

And we were set a full year in advance, which, much different than Jason Cannon, gave me all that time to prepare. It turned out to be a Hamlet year. Kevin Kline’s New York performance was broadcast on PBS. Later that year, Mel Gibson came out with his movie version. But those were just the tip of the Hamlet iceberg.

I was able to access numerous video records of good to near-great performances: Olivier, of course, plus Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen and the famous Richard Burton Broadway “in rehearsal” Hamlet. (Branagh’s complete script version, and the modern take with Ethan Hawke were still to come.) I also came across some audio versions with various and very competent British casts, all of which (including the video versions) informed and aided my portrayal.

Literary research also helped. There’s an apocraphyl story that the three people who have the most books written about them are first, Jesus, then Napoleon, and then Hamlet. (And of course, Hamlet is fictional). If not true, it’s close. You can find as many books as you can carry about the Dane, and that will just be the start. Many get pretty narrow as to their concerns, but even amateur research yielded lots of interesting angles and interpretations on the play and specific passages.

We had a healthy rehearsal period as well. Chief among its joys was the fight choreography. We used rapier and dagger, and it was a muscular, ambitious battle. It was also a great exercise regimen. Nearing production, I don’t think I’ve ever been in better shape. One night, a couple weeks before opening, we performed the fight for the cast in a rehearsal room with a tile floor. (We wanted everyone to see where we’d be going, and swinging our swords, so folks would know where to safely stow on stage.) At the end of that rehearsal fight, after my dead Hamlet arose, I had left a body outline of sweat on that tile floor, underscoring the speed and strain of that fight.

During the character work, two insights stood out, neither from classic sources but from contemporary popular mediums. One was from a movie, John Carpenter’s underrated remake of THE THING. In the movie, the first time somebody sees the thing, it’s small, far from the impressive monster it will turn out to be. The guy sees it, then goes to his compadres and says, “There’s something in the next room. I don’t know what it is, but it’s weird and it’s pissed off.” That nails Hamlet for me. He’s weird, and he’s pissed off. A bad combination.

The other insight was from, of all things, a joke. It’s the oldie but goodie about the old bull and the young bull up on hill, looking down into a valley of cute, huggable, in-season cows. The young bull is beside himself. He says, “Let’s run down there, let’s run down there right now, and fuck us a cow, c’mon, let’s run down right now and fuck a cow, c’mon what are you waiting for, let’s go, let’s run down, let’s fuck a cow!” And the old bull says, “What do you say, we walk down, and fuck ‘em all.” That, to me, illustrates Hamlet’s progress in the play. When the show starts, he’s beside himself. He wants to kill somebody, anybody (which he does, in a sense, with Polonius). But as the show goes on, he slows down, maybe he matures, and he kills everybody.

In performance, I wasn’t afraid of doing Hamlet, but I was aware it was a big chunk to try to bite off. I remember sitting in the audience a couple hours before opening night, staring at the ceiling, hoping I would be able to blow the roof off.

That didn’t happen, but it was a memorable experience. The production had its ups and downs – downs included some ego and romantic problems that diminished some key supporting performances and a water main break that cancelled a sold-out Saturday performance, and the ups included a first-rate video production of the show, which aired on local PBS (scenes of which will appear on midnightcompany.com in the future), and the satisfaction of giving a credible, well-prepared take on perhaps the greatest role ever written. The play was the thing I enjoyed, but, so too, was the research. The readiness was all.

 


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Revised: October, 2007
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