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The Character Journal - Hamlet

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From ‘Hamlet’ – William Shakespeare

Food for thought.

  • Who can you turn to for genuine honest feedback? 
  • How do you record learning so that you can bring it from one production to the next? 

It was an interesting challenge for me as an actor to be constrained by the parameters of the Drama A-Level. I was beginning to understand that a performance can be fluid from one night to the next at the same time that this exam was taking place. My qualm with the assessment was that it seemed difficult to objectively judge a piece of creative media, given that art is usually be judged on individual interpretation. The idea that my monologues would have to tick certain boxes came into conflict with my own fledgling belief – built from Mike Alfreds’ book ‘Different Every Night’ – that a performance could not stay rigid lest the creativity in the actor was extinguished.  

A second challenge came from my own performance habit. I was used to rehearsing diligently on my own and not performing for others until absolutely necessary (in order to iron out any kinks that might cause criticism). This style of practice is encouraged at A-Level, given the limited time teachers have with each student. The problem in this style of practise is that an actor can begin to only see things from their own perspective. They have no way of evaluating whether the reasons behind their choices read to an actual audience. It can also mean that an actor can get bogged down in trying to remember certain “perfect takes”, where the piece really clicked internally. This saps energy from an audience. What you might see as a flash of inspiration might not resonate to other people because it has been justified in your own head and not through your external presentation.

These problems required one solution and that was the input of a secondary perspective. There were aspects of my performance that didn’t read. It is important to understand the value of a truly honest opinion. This usually comes from someone you can trust – and honest feedback doesn’t always have to be constructively critical, it can be positive too!

Regarding the constraints of the exam, my timing was always too long. The monologue had to come in between 2 and 3 minutes and I was consistently hitting the 3.30 mark. We chalked this up to lengthy pauses that I would take as I went through a fabricated natural thought process in my head. To me this felt justified because I was seeing a constant narrative in the form of my own thoughts, however my audience was left with gaps in my performance as those thoughts were not being physically communicated. Here was a perfect crossing of both challenges and it required someone to tell me straight to my face that the choices were not being communicated and it would be better, for both timing and clarity, to let them go.  

The end result of my adjustment was a more rapid pace. This worked very well for Hamlet in his manic state; that can be interpreted as a façade (the speed of speech perhaps an idea Hamlet has about how insane people behave). It also brought my time down by an entire minute, meaning that when pauses did come they were well earned and caused the audience to focus more. The increased speed forced me to really understand the text so that the words didn’t become lost. A focus on the iambic pentameter and emphasis on my diction was paramount. I marked the stressed/unstressed syllables with small dashes on my page and discovered that a line reading is almost given to you by Shakespeare in the words that have emphasis. Focusing on the iambic pentameter allows one to not brush over phrases that we would commonly rush through today and to give even the most unexciting phrases more time – leading to more easily communicated emotion.  

It was important to me, with Shakespearean poetic language to connect with the character on a personal level by identifying our similarities and differences. The performance of the monologue coincided with an exploration into my own personal values. At the time, I was struggling with being impulsive against being hesitant. I felt this was holding me back in my personal sphere as I would often overthink very minor interactions rather than opening myself up to mistakes and as a result: learning. I was able to connect this to Hamlet’s fatal flaw of indecision through my experimentation with the Laban efforts. These are physical manifestations of certain traits, personalities or emotional states. I was first introduced to these during a production of ‘Pinocchio’ and here I was able to use the ‘Wring’ effort to explore Hamlet’s physicality as a result of his indecision. The efforts are characterised by four dimensions – speed, weight, direction and flow. In particular the ‘Wring’ effort is defined as being sustained (as opposed to quick), strong (as opposed to light), indirect and bound. I attributed parts of Hamlet’s arc to these traits and experimented with how exaggerated or minimal I could make my movements. My definitions were… 

  • Strong – intensity, resistance to overcome in the form of Claudius and Laertes (physical opponents) and moral resistance in committing murder, treatment of Ophelia and – crucial to this monologue – the weight of father’s expectations. 
  • Flexible – lack of purpose, indecision over how to proceed, wants to be moved by impulses as Laertes and Fortinbras are but cannot overcome his moral compass, puts on a façade of flexibility but really feels… 
  • Bound – trapped by expectation, haunted by the ghost of his father and unable to outlet his emotions in a healthy way, leads to manic episodes where the energy explodes out of him. 
  • Sustained – while on a more precise scale Hamlet is indecisive, he does slowly move towards a broad goal, this also represented his intellectual ability and his need to be seen as calculated and cold – when in reality his emotions were getting the better of him. 

As seen here, the healthy outlet of emotion was something that I felt Hamlet struggled with consistently. The angle that he wanted to be intellectual and was continually held back by emotion was something that I could connect to as a difference between myself and the character. 

I noted that ‘James knows the value of big emotions and that it is alright to be allowed to feel them when they arise. Hamlet doesn’t understand that you cannot control these emotions and that they happen when they happen.’  

The end result was a Hamlet that felt trapped by his emotions and inadequate as a result, the speed and tense movement made the character seem physically in anguish over his indecision – which was something more palpable for the audience and the examiner to hold onto. 

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