Shakespeare can't ever have imagined the play would have been performed at that length, as plays at the Globe went up at two o'clock and had to be down by between four and five, so perhaps he prepared an edition for the library, a bit like the director's cut in the film industry, for the aficionado's private enjoyment.
The first time the full Folio text was played was here in Stratford, in 1899 by Frank Benson. They played up to the end of the closet scene in the afternoon and then resumed the rest of the play in the evening. The first marathon Shakespeare day!
On the afternoon of the first day of rehearsals we visit the Shakespeare Centre Library in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon where Head Librarian Sylvia Morris gets out the RSC's own copy of the First Folio for the company to look at.
At the front is my favourite page: the list of all the actors who first appeared in the plays. After Shakespeare comes Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet; further down the list is Joseph Taylor, who took over the part after his death, thus beginning a long line which goes through Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean, Macready, Irving, Gielgud, Olivier and on up to David Tennant now.
Week 2 - Round the table
For a second week, we are sitting around a table exploring the text word-byword, line-by-line. The whole company read the play in turns, scene-by-scene, and then put each line into their own words.
This may sound laborious, but it reveals how easy it is to assume you know what the words mean, and how hard it is to be really specific. Sometimes it shatters preconceptions, sometimes confirms them. Occasionally someone provides a memorable 'translation'; Andrea Harris, with admirable alliteration, translates the word 'Mountebank' as 'drug-dealing dude' and (revealing her Arkansas roots) converts 'John-a-Dreams' to 'Who-hit-John-and-run'. Very quickly our collective knowledge of the play is enhanced. No-one is allowed to read their own part or comment on their own character.
Sometimes there are intense disagreements. We have every possible edition of the play at hand to consult various editorial opinions. Inevitably the editors tend to fall silent on just the point the actors want illuminating.
By the time we get to Friday and we read the whole play through for the first time in one go, everyone is ready and prepared.
The process reveals images and descriptions which can easily be overlooked, like Shakespeare's chilling description of how Claudius keeps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern like 'an ape an apple, in the corner of its mouth, first mouthed to be last swallowed'. It's a shocking, metaphysical, almost absurdist image. The work of rehearsal will be to try and fresh mint images such as these.
As a little light relief from all the brain-work we watch an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart plays Hamlet. Above his bed is a sticker which reads 'Danes do it Melancholy'.
Robert Jones, designer, and Christine Rowland, our costume supervisor, begin having costume chats with members of the company. The assistant director, Cressida, and some of the company present a rehearsed reading of Fratricide Punished, a seventeenth-century German version of Hamlet, which has a particularly funny account of how Hamlet got away from the pirates. It strikes us that this might be a fragment of the Ur-Hamlet, sometimes ascribed to Thomas Kyd, which Shakespeare rewrote.
Week 3 - Breaking the play down
This week we work through the play slowly, scene-by-scene. It gives everyone the chance to investigate their relationships with each other and to challenge lines that have been cut, or argue for others to go.
As a result of this process we reassess the impact of the new king, Claudius, on Denmark. Unlike his belligerent predecessor, Hamlet's father, who had challenged the old King of Norway to single combat and was not above sledding his pole-axe on the ice, Claudius has managed to avoid war with Norway by diplomatic efforts alone. Consequently Voltemand and Cornelius (Cornelia in our production), who had been cut, re-enter the play, as does the action hero, Fortinbras.
Terry King continues work on the fight with Hamlet and Laertes. They've worked every morning for an hour and a half for the first two weeks on roughing out the structure. Now there will be regular sessions outside the rehearsal room itself.
Working through Act Three we reach the most famous soliloquy of all: 'To be, or not to be'. Why is it here? Why, after Hamlet has found such inspiration in the Player's tears at Hecuba, when he has decided to catch the conscience of the king with The Mousetrap, has he descended into this slough of despondency and fatalism? A solution presents itself: in the First Quarto, the speech appears in Act Two, and is the first time we see Hamlet following the encounter with his father's spirit and since Ophelia's description of the distracted prince's appearance in her closet. We try adopting this structure.
Week 4 - On our feet
This week we are finally on our feet sketching out the whole play. With a little simple stage geography applied, the scenes begin to move themselves. To keep the play fluid and fast-moving, we've allowed very little furniture.
Movement director Michael Ashcroft begins work on the dumbshow and we try to work out the difference between it and the play-within-a-play. In examining the staging of this, it seems the real focus of the audience's attention should be on Claudius and Gertrude. It is they who are on display.
On Tuesday we rehearse for the first time on the Courtyard stage. The working lights are on the stage and the auditorium is lit by the house lights, so we can't see the actors' faces; their voices must carry the scene. Cicely Berry, the RSC's Director of Text and Voice, is watching and listening intently at the back of the auditorium. She puts her finger on the challenge we face: everybody might now know precisely what they are talking about, but it is not only literal meaning that is important with Shakespeare. His power is also conveyed through the rhythm and sound of the language; 'the sound must seem an echo to the sense'.
On a more mundane level, we have to decide where to place the interval. Shakespeare didn't have intervals, but these days they are demanded, both by audiences and bar managers. So, where to put it? What about after the play? But surely that would interrupt the furious dynamic that leads right through that terrible day to the closet scene and on to Hamlet's departure for England? Before the play? Too early, surely? What about two intervals? One when Hamlet decides not to rely solely on the evidence of the Ghost but to set 'The Mousetrap', and perhaps one just before the 'Eggshell' scene, as Hamlet witnesses Fortinbras' army marching against a corner of Poland and finally determines to accept his fate and delay no longer. But that would make a long evening even longer. So where is the ideal cliffhanger?
Week 5 - The mad scene
In 1579 a girl called Katharine Hamlet was drowned in the Avon at Tiddington, just upstream from Stratford. Shakespeare was fifteen. Mariah Gale, who plays Ophelia, and I visit the spot where it was meant to have happened, as recorded in the Court records of the time.
Then we walk along the Avon, past willows growing aslant the river. In one spot there are tall spikes of purple blossom. They are the long purples, which Gertrude describes in Ophelia's garland of coronet weeds. They grow among banks of stinging nettles (another of the plants Ophelia has gathered for her garland). It occurs to us that if Mariah were to try gathering the long purples, nettles, daisies, crow flowers, the rosemary, fennel, pansies and rue which she collects in her imagined funerary tribute for her dead father (buried in a hurried hugger-mugger of secrecy after his murder) then her skin would quickly become muddy, scratched and red-raw with stings. Perhaps this is how to play the mad scene.
Ellen Terry, who played Ophelia opposite Henry Irving, was probably the first actress to visit an asylum to research the character's madness. This initiative possibly reached its height when, in 1989, the RSC took Mark Rylance's Hamlet to Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, to do a run for the inmates.
We have agreed that each time we rehearse the mad scene, the other actors will not know what route to Ophelia's madness we are taking, what instigates it. What is sense to her must seem lunacy to them. Someone once said that madness is when people stop trying to understand you.
Elsewhere, Claudius' Switzers are being taught a bit of military discipline by Staff Sgt. 'Robbo' Robertson and Sgt. Nick Casswell from the local branch of the Territorial Army.
Week 6 - Back to the top of the play
Lots of questions have emerged, which now need answering. The text may allow ambiguity, but actors can't act it. We need to make choices. That's the difference between reading a play and acting it.
- When did Claudius and Gertrude begin their affair? Was it before Old Hamlet's death? Is that why the Ghost accuses them of adultery?
- Why does Hamlet adopt his antic disposition?
- Does Hamlet realise he is being overheard in the nunnery scene?
- Does Claudius actually reveal his guilt in his reaction to 'The Mousetrap', or is that Hamlet's imagination, and what does Horatio think?
- Why does the Ghost appear in the closet scene, and what effect does that have on his old family?
- Does he prevent his son's attack on his mother? Is that his intention? Why doesn't Gertrude see the Ghost if, after all, mere soldiers like Barnado and Marcellus do?
- Why does Gertrude seem not to have run to help Ophelia as she drowns?
- Why does Shakespeare put the invitation to the duel in the mouth of a waterfly like Osric?
- When does Gertrude realise the cup is poisoned?
We might not have all the answers, but perhaps we have some of the right questions.
Week 7 - Run-through
We start to run sections together. Pace is clarity of thought. If our thinking is right, the pace of the play should be swift and deadly. As we start to run sections, the five distinct days over which the play occurs (allowing for the various time shifts) emerge with clarity. After one run, Cicely Berry, shaking her head, says, 'it is all so human'.
We have explored the historicist perspective (is Polonius a portrait of Lord Burleigh, Queen Elizabeth's Chief Minister? Is Hamlet an autobiographical portrait of the Earl of Oxford?). We've argued about the play's politics. It's an intensely dangerous world of hyper-surveillance, in which Hamlet himself seems largely politically disinterested.
We've delved into the psychoanalysis of poisoners, and rejected Freudian analysis of the Oedipal nature of the closet scene. But to bring the play home to each of us, to allow it to touch our own lives, and to get even closer to the iconic questions touching our own mortality that the play poses, we have more work to do.
Next week we move from the security of our rehearsal room into The Courtyard Theatre for the technical week. Suddenly there will be a huge set, and lights, and sound effects, and costumes, and dressers and wig girls, and the whole stage crew and props staff, and a band and music cues, and flymen on hand for the automation, and the aerial work, and a production photographer, and a massive auditorium to reach, and, by the first preview on Thursday, a thousand people sitting in it. On Monday morning it seems impossible to believe that we will ever get there!