On Not Being Hamlet

The Canadian series Slings and Arrows is pretty much a dream television event for a Shakeophile and a thespian. Sharply written, gloriously acted, if you have worked in the theatre you will recognise so many people. The actorly types are all there (up to and including the pretentious director who says things like “They love me in Berlin”), but there is also the General Manger trying to juggle funding and sponsorship with the erratic nature of art and artists, the Stage Manger who deep down loathes actors, the Administrator who is actually the one keeping all the balls in air while no one notices the extraordinary feat she is performing to do so.

The only thing I would change in the practically perfect first series is the rather weak response of the leading lady when her ex asks her why she cheated on him with the director when they were both performing in Hamlet. She offers only a shrugged “He was my director.” What a shameful missed opportunity for her to express something so many brilliant actresses must feel when working on this most idolised of plays. Something like: “You were Hamlet. Everything was always about you. You have no idea what it’s like to be Ophelia, when everything is always about Hamlet, all the time.”

First-string male actors are always Hamlet, in everything they do, including when they are playing Richard III or King Lear, John Proctor or Willy Loman. Women, no matter how brilliant, spend the bulk of their lives being Ophelia (ingenue), Gertrude (mother), Goneril (shrew) or Regan (succubus), in stories about men. Occasionally a shot at Rosalind will come along, or an actress will gratefully embrace the ghastly Miss Julie, just for the chance to experience being what the show is about. The director in Slings and Arrows, when nursing his terrified action-movie star Hamlet through his opening night nerves tells him frankly that he should see the play as six monologues, with bridging moments in which other actors are involved. How there must be times when actresses long to be that character, the sun to the other characters’ satellites.

This is about more than who has the most important role in a play. It is about who has enough power in the rehearsal room to affect the course of the production. If you make a habit of reading anything actors publish on their experience of preparing Shakespeare, you will find one scenario occurring over and over again. A director demands a reading from an actress that makes no sense to her if she is to continue believing the character she is playing is a human being. She explains why it doesn’t work to the director and he, without offering further help, tells her she needs to “work it out for herself”. Tony Sher in his book Year of the King blithely details some appalling rehearsal room dynamics whereby the concerns of the female actors are routinely brushed off, while the director is available to work through every twitch he feels along his path. He doesn’t notice how dreadful he sounds, and how it reads as a chummy ganging up between him and the director, up to the point of forcing an actress to adopt a reading of her part that she knows makes no sense. In this case the director tells the actor playing Queen Elizabeth that she is to agree enthusiastically to the idea of her sons’ murderer marrying her daughter. As it happens, this is an absurd and clumsy reading of the scene, in which Shakespeare has the Queen very carefully avoid saying yes or no to Richard, and then has it announced in the next scene that the princess has been married to Richmond instead, but that is not the main point. The key feature of the rehearsal room exchange is that the actress knows the reading is stupid, to the point where all she can think of to do is play it as if she has been possessed by a demon (an idea the director quickly shuts down), but instead of engaging with the possibility that his initial idea is flawed the director simply tells her to be won over by Richard, not possessed, not mad, just do it.

Similar experiences are reported by Harriet Walter and Frances Barber when playing Ophelia opposite Hamlets who liked to slap them around during the ‘nunnery’ scene. Whatever they brought to the role could be overruled by the power of the alliance between the director and Hamlet.

To get back to Slings and Arrows, the show seems to feel that the audience will to continue to think of Geoffrey as a great director, even as the writers deliberately take his behaviour to more and more outrageous extremes. And yet when I watch him in rehearsal all I see is a man who neglects almost everything going on in the room, save one actor. In the third series, based around King Lear, Geoffrey is so obsessed with nurturing his ancient, disintegrating lead through that giant of a role, that the whole of the rest of the cast can go hang. When the woman playing Goneril asks a perfectly normal character development question during rehearsal, Geoffrey huffs and sighs as if she is making an outrageous imposition on everybody’s time. As if she is being difficult. Now, it is a very reasonable thing for a director to not want to have that conversation while rehearsing the opening scene. It’s a massive scene to stage, with practically the whole cast, and you don’t want everyone just standing around while the director and one actor discuss nuances of her character arc. However, he doesn’t say “We do need to figure that out, let’s have a chat about this once we’ve firmed up the blocking here and let everyone go”, he tells her, in effect, that she shouldn’t be bothering with the things that concern her. Like how to play her character. Meanwhile his Lear bullies anyone within reach, particularly the women, and even more particularly the inexperienced, vulnerable Cordelia. The show doesn’t shy away from showing the effect of this on the young actress, so thrilled to get such a role, then finding her days filling up with misery. But no one ever brings this home to Geoffrey. His girlfriend, playing Regan, tells him he needs to rein in the actor playing Lear, but even she never asks him to look around at who else he has on stage. There is no scene in which he actually gives any encouragement to Cordelia, much less allows Goneril to discuss with him trivialities like why a woman of such strength might kill herself in the last act.

A man watches an old man speaking closely to a young woman, in theatrical costume.

Director Geoffrey, as Kent, watches his Lear take a break from tormenting Cordelia.

Back when Geoffrey was playing Hamlet himself, his own relationship with his director, Oliver, was so intense it ended up lasting for fully three seasons after Oliver’s death. Geoffrey’s leading lady Ellen, in my invented response above, might have added, “I thought I could make the director think about me for a few minutes, but since he was always obsessed with you, that was a complete bust.” Geoffrey goes on to be the same kind of director, all about Hamlet, all the time.  There is no question that Hamlet‘s story is Hamlet’s, the play is much less an ensemble than many of Shakespeare’s. Even here, though, a vast, complex landmark of humanist art will be that much the less if only one person in it is permitted to think of themselves as the centre of their own tale. Hamlet will always be diminished as a man when Ophelia is not a person, too.

Related post at Hoyden About Town: On Ophelia, who never got to be a hoyden

The AV Club has detailed and often rather poetic recaps of each Slings and Arrows episode.

Now, please enjoy the sparkling brilliance of the Slings and Arrows Season One theme, “Cheer Up Hamlet”:


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