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How to Rehearse HAMLET

Observations from a week of tablework

The first week of rehearsal—often called “tablework” because it usually consists of the cast and director sitting around a table—provides the first chance to discuss the overarching design of the play, before beginning the moment-to-moment problem-solving of scene work. In the wrong hands, tablework can resemble an unfocused college seminar, but with Michael Kahn no time is wasted. Every sentence uttered has weight, and every seemingly simple question proves surprisingly hard to answer, cutting to the heart of the events of each scene. The first six days of Hamlet rehearsals—begun in New York with just the principal actors, and continued in Washington with the whole ensemble—provided a rare glimpse of how to begin approaching Shakespeare’s longest and most complex play.

DAY ONE: THE FAMILY DRAMA

After introductory remarks and greetings, the company (Michael Urie as Hamlet, Alan Cox as Claudius, Madeleine Potter as Gertrude, Robert Joy as Polonius and Paul Cooper as Laertes) reads through the scenes they share in the play up to act 2, scene 2, with discussion. It quickly becomes apparent that, beneath the diplomatic emissaries and political plots, Hamlet is at root an intimate family drama, about a son deeply in mourning for his dead father and disturbed by his mother’s sudden remarriage. In the afternoon, Michael dismisses the company and works one on one with Michael Urie on Hamlet’s soliloquies.

Michael Kahn: “Hamlet is a lot of play. Making it clear is a matter of finding the physical life that makes the language mean something. The verse can be well spoken but the action also needs to be intelligible.”

Michael Urie: “There is so much secrecy, intrigue and spying. Hamlet can’t trust anyone—even a loyal friend like Horatio can’t be fully briefed, for his own safety. It seems like the soliloquies chart him working through all this: raging grief (‘Too too solid flesh’), existential angst (‘To be or not to be’), dark plots (‘O what a rogue and peasant slave’). They’re a glimpse into his mind, or his madness, the moment when the veneer cracks. But they’re incomplete. He needs the audience to help him work something out.”

DAY TWO: THE POLITICAL DRAMA

Digging deeper, the company goes back and reads through the same first third of the play, this time focusing on the political workings of Claudius’ court. We again stop at act 2, scene 2, Hamlet’s first “mad scene,” and discuss at length Hamlet’s motivations and actions. Polonius also comes in for extended discussion: is he the fuzzy old simpleton of time-honored stage tradition or rather a creature of government, adept at staying in a position of power no matter who is king?

Robert Joy: “The key word for Polonius seems to be control. As a father, he tries to exercise control over his children, sending Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris. And as an ‘assistant of state’ he sends his daughter to spy on Hamlet. He is always trying and failing to control the world around him.”

MK: “It’s a common trope of revenge tragedy that the madman tells the truth. The difference is that Hamlet’s madness means something. He’s extraordinarily intelligent but also obviously disturbed, and there is something he is doing that does make everybody else think he actually is mad. In fact, everyone seems to think he’s moving toward a desperate act…He also shifts to prose here, and Shakespeare’s prose is in fact harder than his verse. It has to be very carefully crafted by the actor. Hamlet keeps moving back and forth between something internal and something non-internal. Everything he says is connected. He never just makes things up.”

DAY THREE: THE LOVE STORY

Ophelia (Oyin Oladejo) has arrived just in time to rehearse her scenes with Laertes and Polonius (act 1, scene 3 and act 2, scene 1, the secondary family drama in the play) and the famous act 3, scene 1 “nunnery” scene with Hamlet. The company discusses the extent to which Ophelia and Hamlet are spied upon, if and when Hamlet discovers this, which of his lines are directed to Claudius and which toward Ophelia. Hamlet’s antic disposition, a stumbling block, is beginning to be cracked open, uniting all the play’s disparate strands.

MK: “Laertes very much loves his sister, but holds her to a different standard than himself. Ophelia is being told what to do by men all the time, but she has her own viewpoints. There’s something about Denmark that makes young people not to want to stick around.”

DAY FOUR: THE CLOWNS

Adding Rosencrantz (Ryan Spahn) and Guildenstern (Kelsey Rainwater) provides a burst of comic energy and more ambiguity. We track them through the play, discussing how “Stoppardy” to make them: are they in a situation they don’t understand, or do they end up choosing a political side? Lacing R & G through the action, we untangle the complicated familial-political-theatrical knot of Hamlet introducing The Mousetrap in act 3, scene 2 and, after lunch, read through the closet scene and the chase of Hamlet, which takes place in hugger-mugger real time. The play is starting to attain a form.

MK on act 3, scene 2: “This is also a public scene. It is intensely uncomfortable for everybody. The only reason they all excuse what Hamlet is doing is because he’s crazy, and he takes advantage of that fact.”

DAY FIVE: THE OUTWARD AND INWARD FRAME

Back in Washington and joined by the whole company, Michael continues to piece the play together, focusing on the frames within and around the action. Assigning tracks for the Soldiers and Players (two additional layers of the onion), we read through the opening scene (act 1, scene 1), Horatio meeting Hamlet (act 1, scene 2) and Hamlet meeting the Ghost (act 1, scenes 4-5).

MK: “We don’t believe in ghosts. We just don’t. For all of the supernatural hocus-pocus, Hamlet is talking to his father. It’s something everybody would want if they never got the chance to say goodbye. The personal is very real in this play.”  Then, Hamlet greeting the Players (act 2, scene 2).

MK: “After he gets done making fun of Marlowe, Shakespeare allows the greatness of acting to come through. It starts a certain way, all fustian and Polonius interrupting, but then it goes somewhere else. This is really Shakespeare’s ode to the theatre.”

Keith Baxter (Player King): “It starts declamatory, with every line illustrating a new body movement, and then, once it gets to Hecuba, it almost becomes Chekhov.”

MK: “Well let’s see that, then.”

Michael Urie: “Hamlet seems to be a very good scholar, he has a theory of acting and is fascinated by it but he doesn’t have the personality to do it himself. He can’t get lost in the illusion—he remains an ironist.”

DAY SIX: THE GRAVEDIGGER AND FORTINBRAS

The company finishes working through the play’s epic final movements, including Hamlet’s visit to the graveyard and Fortinbras’ appearance in act 4. We are ready for our first readthrough.

MK on Fortinbras: “What if, when Fortinbras comes on at the end, he finds a country in disarray? What if he’s not expecting to wage war or initiate a fascist takeover? Maybe his arrival is the beginning of something else, something new.”

Written by Drew Lichtenberg, Dramaturg

Hamlet is now playing through March 4 at Sidney Harman Hall. Click here for more info.

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