‘Speak the Speech, I pray you…’
The most revered of Shakespeare’s texts, Hamlet, has attracted the curiosity of actors and directors alike. Branagh tried it four times—thrice on stage and once on film. It was while playing the Dane that Daniel Day-Lewis claimed to have seen his father’s ghost staring at him mid-performance. He fled the stage and has never returned. Even Canada’s own thespian heavyweight (ok, Keanu Reeves) grappled with the role at the Manitoba Theatre Centre back in 1995. This fall, a brand new Kingston theatre company, Happy Dane Productions, brings a bold and innovative interpretation of the classical favourite to the Grand Theatre. I sat down with director and long time stalwart of the Kingston theatre scene, Matthew Davis.
Happy Dane is a new company on the Kingston scene. How did you guys come together, and what’s the mandate you’ve set for yourselves?
Happy Dane is a shoot-off of an idea our producer had to do fun and exciting classical texts that haven’t been done in a long time and make them accessible to Kingston audiences. Even though Hamlet’s taught in high school here, it’s difficult to make it accessible to modern audiences. We had to find a way to do that.
There’s an emphasis on making classical theatre ‘accessible’ nowadays that often detracts from proper attention to verse speaking and letting Shakespeare’s words tell the story. How do you approach the challenge of honouring the text whilst creating a visually interesting piece?
Well, we set the production in the Viking era, which is both visually stimulating and close to the actual time of writing. We’ve played with interesting visual ideas, and have been trying to touch on themes such as Norse mythology through lighting concepts. At the same time, if the actors don’t know what they’re saying there’s no way the audience will. We obviously spent a lot of time exploring the text and ensuring that the actors know not only what they’re saying, but why. Everyone’s come to rehearsal with their own take on the text, and it’s been great for me as a director to explore those different ideas. Plus, Vikings didn’t have fencing foils—we’re able to show our audience axe battles.
How have you found the rehearsal process and working with the local talent?
There’s a huge pool of talent in Kingston, especially with Queen’s in town. There’s a huge influx of young talent coming in. To be able to do a show like Hamlet that offers roles to a wide range of ages is great. What’s been happening for a long time is that the community and Queen’s have become quite insular—there have been shows on at Queen’s that have been done before I’ve found out about them. I’m hoping to find bridges to draw the two communities together.
And how has the process changed and informed your perception of the text?
It’s cleared up a number of things. I was never concerned about being the director and it being my vision, my show. All the actors have their own ideas coming in, and if we talk about those and make them mesh, try them out—we can draw different ideas out. The last time I reviewed the text was at theatre school, and I brought those old ideas to this project. They changed in our first rehearsal. I was like, oh, those won’t work. Things become clearer when you work with other people. If you don’t get Shakespeare when you read it, to hear and see on the rehearsal floor clarifies things. Things change every time, a different inflection can make you think: ‘that’s how it’s supposed to be.’
Happy Dane, what’s the vision for the future? Where and what does the company want to be in five years?
I don’t know. The company was originally assembled just for one production, then another. Next year we may want to do King Lear, I don’t know. Kingston theatre is so malleable; it’s all up in the air.
Finally, what would you say to someone who has never seen Hamlet? Why should they come and see the show?
Come and experience the greatest English language play ever written. You can go to any part of this text and have an idea resonate with you. Shakespeare touches on every aspect of human emotion; he touches on family, loyalty, friendship, grief, honour, love and what we do to the people we love. Plus, I have to come back to the axe battle.
Happy Dane Productions: Hamlet: November 6-15 @ 7:30pm / Matinee: 2pm Saturdays / Tickets $20 / $15 students and seniors at The Grand Theatre Box Office, 218 Princess Street.
Tom Mack (2L) is one of the Culture Editors for Juris Diction.
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