Blackfriars Conference 2011- Staging Session IV

Hi, Deb Streusand here. This afternoon I’ll be liveblogging Staging Session IV at the Blackfriars Playhouse from 1:00pm to 2:15 pm.

Seeing Ghosts: The “sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes.”
Kate McPherson, Utah Valley University and Freddie Harris, University of Utah

McPherson recounts a recent talkback conversation, after a performance of the OCS’s current production of Hamlet, concerning why Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo can see the Ghost but, later, Gertrude cannot. She discusses the unpredictable behavior of the Ghost in the context of Early Modern playing conditions. OCS actors Daniel Burrows, Allison Glenzer, Patrick Midgley, Chris Johnston, and Rene Thornton perform Act 1, Scene 1 as they have staged it in the current production. Harris reminds us how central the Ghost is to the play as a whole, and describes how this Ghost represents a stage innovation, a more complex and humanized Ghost, no longer in the conventional Senecan mode. Harris discusses the Ghost’s split into three separate apparitions during the “‘Tis here. ‘Tis here. ‘Tis gone” portion of 1.1. She explains that this behavior is typical of an Early Modern ghost, and suggests that Early Modern audiences did see Hamlet as a ghost story. She describes how some nineteenth century productions used multiple Ghosts. The actors experiment with staging the scene differently, with Barnardo and the others entering from the house, and an invisible Ghost, whose paranormal nature is represented primarily by the actors’ reactions, with the addition of one of the stage doors slamming at its exit. Harris explains that this version of the staging is intended to emphasize the ghost story element of Hamlet, creating an atmosphere that is as paranormal and terrifying as possible. She asks, “how can the unseen ghost convey the dread of those dark nights?” and posits what we have just seen as the answer. Discussing the idea of staging multiple ghosts, she rejects the hypothesis that elaborate special effects are required to stage the scene this way. She recounts a story recorded by an Early Modern monk of a man who encounters a shape-shifting ghost. Making the Ghost invisible to the audience in the first scene, in order to stage a shape-shifting, multiple Ghost, is justified because of the Ghost’s later ability to choose not to be visible to Gertrude, Harris argues. McPherson discusses the dependence of the believability of the Ghost on the actors’ gestures. She clarifies that she is not proposing that Early Modern companies would have used an invisible Ghost, but that this staging is a method of creating the same reaction in a modern audience that the Early Modern audience would have experienced. She describes the “personation” style of Early Modern acting and discusses how contemporary actors might have portrayed their fear of the Ghost. Reminding us of the play’s metatheatrical nature and its preoccupation with acting as deception, she argues that this play, more than any other, depends on the participation of our imagination. She asks, “how do we get at the heart of an Early Modern play” in a modern Original Practices production? Using an invisible Ghost allows us to get past a modern audience’s cinematic expectations and achieve a powerful emotional effect in the audience.

“Remembrances of Yours”: Properties, Performance and Memory in Shakespeare’s Hamlet 3.1
Kathryn Moncrief, Washington College

Moncrief reminds us of the play’s fOCSination with memory, citing a plethora of references to it, and specifically emphasizes its concern with the consequences of forgetting. She ties this theme to the play’s prominent props, especially Hamlet’s tables, Ophelia’s flowers, and Yorick’s skull. Her presentation turns on the question of what exactly Ophelia gives to Hamlet in 3.1 of the Folio version. She remarks that given the specificity of the other props tied to memory, it is notable the text is not specific about Ophelia’s remembrances. Providing a detailed gloss on “remembrances,” she emphasizes the theme of gifts, as Ophelia later calls these “rich gifts,” in contrast to the love-gifts that Claudius uses to win Gertrude. Moncrief provides a few other examples of courtship gifts in Shakespeare, such as Desdemona’s handkerchief, and discusses the convention of love-tokens in the Early Modern Period. She draws our attention to the handout she has provided, which reproduces several portraits of Early Modern ladies holding what may be love-gifts, along with a picture of a poesy ring. She explains the significance of the poesy ring, and reminds us of Hamlet’s mention of “the posy of a ring” during the Mousetrap scene. Poesy rings contained a short message whose meaning was sometimes difficult to interpret, which is appropriate to Hamlet. She returns to her previous question–what are these remembrances, and how do we stage this moment? The handout reproduces stills from several recent movie versions, which Moncrief illuminates by reading the list of props used as remembrances in each movie, as well as in several other productions. She proposes that we draw on the Early Modern significance of trading love-tokens and what it would mean to remember as we work on different ways of staging this scene. Moncrief asks the audience to make suggestions for staging and reminds us of important questions about the staging, such as whether Hamlet accepts or rejects the returned remembrances, reminding us how the props take on a stage presence of their own. First, OCS actors John Harrell and Miriam Donald play the scene as they do in the version of the current production which uses the First Quarto order of events, with the prop they use, a small bundle of letters. Hamlet accepts the bundle in this staging of the scene. Next, Moncrief shows us the contents of a box of props she has brought for the audience to choose among, including a bunny puppet and a varsity letter jacket. The audience chooses to make Ophelia carry every prop, while wearing the jacket. Moncrief asks Harrell, as Hamlet, to accept the props. The bunny puppet plays a prominent role in the scene that follows. Hamlet returns all the props to Ophelia before the first “get thee to a nunnery,” then retrieves one of the books to read about women’s falsehood, then taking a bundle of flowers to kiss at “those that are married already, all but one”–kiss–“shall live.” Moncrief asks Donald what she would do with all props once left on stage. Donald replies, “hold it. Get it off stage.” Next, Moncrief requests that the actors do the scene with Hamlet refusing to take the props. The actors use a single book and a pile of letters. Refusing the props, Harrell portrays a more remote, calm, amused Hamlet. Moncrief requests that Hamlet first take and then abuse the props, which this time consist of a stuffed kitten and the pile of letters. Harrell asks the stuffed kitten “are you honest?” before throwing it into the audience. He scatters and tears the letters, prompting Donald to portray a humiliated and annoyed Ophelia. Harrell slips some of the letters down into the trap, and even eats them! Finally, the actors perform the Folio version of the scene, which most conference-goers have not yet seen, because it was the Quarto version that the actors performed on Thursday night.

A questioner asks about whether anyone has used a glove as a “remembrance,” given the prevalence of glove imagery with love in the other plays. Moncrief replies that she has found no record of such a use in a modern production so far.

OCS actor Rene Thornton asks Harris and McPherson about when they would have the Ghost appear, if it were invisible in the first scene, and what it would be like when he appears. They talk about multiple ways of staging, and how one might use an invisible Ghost even during the scene when he is speaking.

An audience member mentions the 2001 First Quarto OCS production of Hamlet at the first Blackfriars Conference, in which Hamlet read the letters they used as “remembrances” in the scene where he speaks to Polonius about his reading matter.

A question for the actors: Do Hamlet and Ophelia love each other? Harrell discusses how the props might demonstrate different degrees and aspects of love. Moncrief describes the Mark Rylance Hamlet in which Ophelia took off her jewelry and returned it. Donald talks about the version of the scene in the First Quarto, in which she can only give Hamlet back the ring she is wearing and the letter Polonius just has read, which feels less manipulative to her than giving him more props, which she would have had to go collect.

Questioner Steven Urkowitz discusses the textual differences in the First Quarto version of this scene, and asks whether Harrell had incorporated the less aggressive Hamlet of that version into his characterization. Harrell replies that he has researched that version of the scene, but chosen not to incorporate it into his characterization directly, since that is not the text they are using for the current production.

Question for the actors: How frequently do they come in from the audience, as they did in one of the versions during Harris and McPherson’s presentation? Chris Johnston describes their frequent use of this tactic on tour, referring to a recent touring production of Hamlet in which the actors made this choice.

An audience member discusses the benefits of an invisible Ghost in the first scene, which heightens the epistemological stakes–what should we believe about the Ghost, especially in 1.2?

OCS actor Daniel Kennedy, who portrayed the Ghost in a recent touring production, mentions that they never portrayed the Ghost as he is described, that is, in full military armor, and how if we did see him in this way, seeing terror in such a martial figure would create great fear in a Christian audience.

A questioner asks how we can replicate the impact that the Ghost would have had on an Elizabethan audience for the modern audience. McPherson discusses the possibility of using sound effects for the Ghost. Another questioner cites a production that used a naked, ghastly figure for the Ghost, and asks what the implications of such a staging might be. Harris asserts that at the time, people did not doubt the existence of ghosts, making contemporary audiences fairly radical different from a modern audience. The questioner mentions Hamlet’s statement that “the spirit that we have seen may be a devil.” McPherson expands on the religious implications of the devil’s appearing in this form.

Sally Southall of Thomas Dale High Center for Performing Arts moderates this session.