All the pieces matter

13 12 2011

I have a proud boast of never walking out of anything – I’ve sat through bizarre Dutch films about serial killers, science fiction opera and one-man shows where you want to crawl under the seat and yibble to yourself in embarrassment.

The one thing that did have me disappearing to the bar at the interval and not coming back, though, was a masterclass by John Barton.  Yes, he may be a directing legend, and one of the RSC’s big names, but forsooth, he droneth on and on and on until both the actors and the audience had lost the will to live.

The Actors’ Temple, though, know how to run a masterclass. Their rehearsals for Hamlet were thrown open to anyone who fancied attending (I went twice – right at the start of the process in August when the company were using the eventual venue, and then a week before the opening night at the end of November when they’d taken over Bernard Miles’s former pride and joy, the Mermaid, which is now a corporate conference centre). And there are no passengers – anyone turning up found themselves invited to take part in the warm-up, and were liable to have questions fired at them throughout the day. I bet the school party that popped into the Mermaid for an hour will be hooked on the Bard for life. The rehearsals very much set the agenda for what was to come – be prepared to experiment, but never to lose sight of the text.

They’re an interesting bunch, the Actors’ Temple. The organisation was set up in 2003 by soldier-turned-actor Mark Wakeling and Ellie Zeegen. Their training methods are based on those of American actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, whose ethos was “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

They’ve now decided to branch out from actor training into film-making and staging plays. And if Hamlet is anything to go by, they’ve made a damn good decision.

You couldn’t get a greater contrast between Barton, the absent-minded professor type, and his Actors’ Temple counterpart Tom Radcliffe with his close-cropped hair, beard and tattoos, and deceptively casual manner. “I’m just here to kick arse,” he says cheerfully at one point. You only realise later just how much his ’give it a go and if it doesn’t work, never mind’ approach draws from the actors – much more so than Barton’s pedantic drilling and re-drilling of a sentence or even a word. The former social worker has an unerring ability to cut to the chase. When the actors are struggling with where to pitch a scene, he gets them to summarise the bare bones of what’s going on. And his inclusive approach leads to some very lively audience discussions, ranging from who believes in god (very few of those present) to how much loyalty is owed to the text and the playwright. The latter is sparked by the decision to dispense with the sailor in the scene where Horatio receives Hamlet’s letter, and instead to use Ophelia as the audience. It makes perfect sense, given Horatio has been the one to look out for her and to intercede on her behalf with Gertrude.

The audience become part of the process, too, when the cast take over the crypt of St Andrew church in Holborn for the actual performance. They’re moved around the dark tunnels of the catacombs and witness the ghost appearing on the battlements, become onlookers at the graveyard scene and are then inches away from the action in the final fight.

Radcliffe draws intelligent performances from his actors, which shine fresh light on a text that you might feel you know inside-out. And it really is a team performance, from the intelligence and authority of Claudius (Gary Condes) and Polonius (Ron Sudhir Scala), both of whom speak the verse with great power and precision, down to the exuberant young pups as the players. There are a couple of soap opera names in the cast – James Alexandrou from Eastenders and John Pickard from Hollyoaks, who turned in a very clearly delineated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the former on edge and spoiling for a fight, the latter more of a peacemaker.

It’s a dark, edgy production which makes exemplary use of the venue, with its low ceilings, tunnels and jagged holes in the wall. Candles, which throw out a faint aroma, provide most of the light. And the costumes are simple but striking – luscious colours for Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius, a Romany feel for the players, and the garb of a holy man for the all-seeing Horatio.

It’s fascinating to see what has survived from the early days of rehearsal, and what has changed right up the wire. The players still explode into the action in a riot of colour, noise and motion, although the idea of the ‘speak the speech I pray you’ scene being done around a table with the player queen reading the tarot cards for Hamlet while the player king tries to keep order amongst his riotous troupe hasn’t survived.

Also lost is an intriguing reading of the player king and queen’s speech to the court – done the first time around in an intense, unrecognisable language. No one at the time guessed what was going on – and me and my mate Linda were sworn to secrecy by Radcliffe when we begged him to tell us what was happening (it turned out that the players had the gift of foresight and realised that all those before them would soon be dead). Apparently only one or two cast members ever worked it out, so I assume the idea was ditched on the grounds the audience wouldn’t guess either.

In the week between the Mermaid rehearsal and the production opening, Laertes’s volume has been dialled down several notches, making his grief and anger more believable. And the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bed chamber, with the attendant ghost, benefits from the crypt’s darkness – the stark lighting of the Mermaid, and the positioning of the actors had veered at times towards a happy families tableau.

Fortinbras falls foul of the need to get everyone home before midnight. It means, though, that we’re spared what Linda calls the ‘fuck me, they’re all dead’ exposition at the end!

The performance is truly anchored by Mark Wakeling’s Hamlet and Ellie Zeegen’s Ophelia. Wakeling, a former Coldstream Guards officer, is often cast as military men (you might know him as Captain Tom Ryan in Primeval, or as a British army officer in The Wind That Shakes the Barley). He brings a stillness and a blinding intelligence to the role – there’s no sign of the gauche student here. Zeegen speaks the verse beautifully and presents us with a breakdown that is absolutely heart-breaking.

The production oozes clarity and honesty, and benefits from the fact this company has trained together using a technique that strips away any artifice. And the claustrophobia of the inspired setting means that this Denmark truly is a prison.