And so rehearsals began for Hamlet.
And I had to stop hiding in loos.
That lovely dream is now my new reality.
And it’s time to deal with Shakespeare and one of his most popular plays.
And we began by playing.
I recently told a good friend what we do at the beginning of rehearsals and with a straight face he turned to me and said: “So it sounds like you are on the playground in primary school.” After my initial retort I had to laugh. I actually do go to work to play.
We throw a ball to each other and say the name of the person you are throwing the ball to. Then we loosen up by walking around the room in different rhythms and modes, making eye contact; not making eye contact, perhaps shuffling forward swinging our hips wildly.
We beat out African rhythms on our bodies and instruments while keeping a regular beat going into the floor with our feet. We master this within the first week and we know that this beat is part of the world we are creating but we don’t know quite yet how it fits in.
We also explore so many different ways of how we are feeling today. What kind of musical instrument are you today? What kind of fairground ride? What kind of tool in the workshop are you today? We also have been through the gauntlet with word association games: speedily trying to say a word on a given theme. If you stumble you are out. And when you write it down you get the sense that you are describing something absurd. And you can understand how someone might scratch their head, perplexed and say: “HUH? THIS is your work day?”
The first thing any good director does is make sure that you know each other and are comfortable with each other enough to start the work on such a mammoth narrative as Hamlet. Simon Godwin, our director took us through these exercises, as well as Mbulelo and Shelly, our movement instructors, and Sola, our African rhythm instructor, who guided our play for the first few days in very positive ways.
One really great exercise that I remember so vividly from the beginning of rehearsals goes like this. You are seated with a partner. One person is A; the other B. Then a theme from the play is mentioned and all A’s get the chance to talk for a minute on that theme and how it relates to their own lives. Then it swaps round to all the B’s. Everyone is talking at once so there is an intimate moment of sharing between two people for two minutes and then the B’s were asked to move on to a new partner A. Like speed dating but discussing themes of Hamlet. I learnt a great deal about my fellow actors that day. Their relationship to certain themes and how it might affect them.
And you get to see that the games are there for a reason. Some have simple objectives like getting to know each other’s names. Another simple objective might be to laugh or relax with each other. Some games and rhythms relate directly to the world we are creating without setting anything in stone. And some games are there to show us that the themes we find in Hamlet relate directly to our own experience of the world. And that’s how we bring an ancient text closer to our time. To us. For us as actors and for the audience.
So I suppose the rehearsal space, like my friend said, is a playground. Of sorts. It’s a space where we have to come together to play but for specific reasons: to learn to create, together; to be ready to create together and to make a language which we all understand for this specific production of this specific play. It always amazes me how laughter brought on by a few well placed games eases the room, banishing those sharks that were circling and brings you to a safe place to act.
It reminds of what Hamlet says to the players, “…the purpose of playing whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature and to show the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure. Go make you ready” Act 3 Scene 2.
And that’s what the games and exercises are for – to make us ready.