I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK in 2006 after our (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s) opening night of Henry IV parts 1 & 2. Patrick Stewart… yes Patrick Stewart was standing alone at the post show party. Having just seen him the previous night in the role of Antony in Antony & Cleopatra, I knew I had at the very least an ice breaker with which to chat him up. Being a fan of both Shakespearean legacy as well as comic books (specifically Marvel’s the X-Men), I could barely hold myself together as I approached Patrick-Antony-Shylock-Professor X-Captain Picard-Stewart.
I introduced myself as a member of the cast and gracefully landed a simple, but direct, “I loved Antony & Cleopatra, you were fantastic.” He was nothing but gracious and returned the compliment (although I doubt he would’ve remembered me from my show) and we began to talk about Shakespeare.
We went from Star and Blubbering Fan in one instant to just two Shakespeare lovin’ nerds in the next. Mr. Stewart… – oh who am I kidding?… my old buddy Patrick, Pat, Patty-o… – starts telling me about his current rehearsal process for the role of Prospero in the upcoming RSC production of The Tempest. Having played the role 3 times (once in his teens, again in his 40’s, and now) he felt his current age and Prospero’s were much closer to alignment. I told him that I too played Prospero in my teen years. We shared a smile that only two former teenage Prosperos could share and then I asked him, “so, what’s it like… to return to a role like that at different stages in your career?” Mr. Stewart will not very likely remember this conversation, but it will live in my memory as long as I have one. “It’s all there,” he said.
Now, I won’t be foolish enough to attempt to directly quote the rest, but I will share what I gleaned of his insightful response. He told me that it was all there, that IT never changes; only WE do. He explained that Shakespeare is so rich and deep that it is impossible to get it all in one take, nor should one attempt to do so. In fact the only thing that was different was Patrick, himself. There was no way the teen age Prospero could deliver the performance of the 40 year old, nor could he now attempt to capture the magic of a moment that may have worked very well for him as a teenager. However, not one of those different experiences should invalidate the other. Just because he understood a moment or piece of text now after some life had been lived, doesn’t mean that he missed an opportunity the last time. This philosophy could be applied to a performance from night to night. Each time an actor enters into the machine of a role in performance he or she carries with them a different set of perspectives and opportunities, but as for the text… it’s all there. This look at the work was enormously freeing and continues to impact me from role to role.
I played (or should I say attempted to play) Hamlet in 1995 at the age of 17. The previous summer I witnessed Lee Ernst play the role at American Players Theatre. I was first introduced to the story at McKinley Jr. High School via the Zeffirelli film starring Mel Gibson. I have watched Kenneth Branagh’s film. I witnessed James DeVita on many nights playing the role at APT in the 2003 season, under the direction of David Frank.
I have seen multiple films and read multiple books (including the many versions of the text itself).
.Understudying the actor Ben Carlson in the role in a production at Chicago Shakespeare, directed by Terry Hands in 2006 was incredibly educational. In the past year alone I have seen three different stage productions, two of which had dear friends of mine playing the Melancholy Dane (Michael Gotch, directed by Mark Lamos and Andy Truschinski, directed by David H. Bell). It is impossible not to have certain moments or line readings cement themselves in my consciousness, simply as a result of cultural osmosis. Whether I liked or disliked any of these versions is beside the point.
The process now for me is about a deconstruction of those embedded assumptions as to what a moment is “supposed to be.” Then, in seeing these moments, beats, relationships, journey points – call them what you will – in seeing them fresh with a clean slate, I have to bring an innocent version of myself to each of those particular moments, allowing them to recreate my perspective of Hamlet himself and his journey and thus, recreating me.
Already there are moments in the play that have a completely different meaning for me than they ever had.
“…Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”
Is Hamlet raging here in a fit of uncontrolled passion, as I have seen it done again and again and as would seem to be the truth of the moment… or, having just seen the powerful influence an actor has in performing, is he attempting to try on the “role” of the avenger; something he himself fears he may not have the ability to be? After all, what does he utter in the first act just before leaving to begin his vengeance quest?
“O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!”
The light being shed on these moments is illuminating different angles of what it means to be a “human being” for me. My automatic gut instincts are full of fire and aggressive passion. I have to allow that furious energy to release and take a breath in order to enter in to these moments with a state of being that is not so furious, but rather simpler, truer, more vulnerable and honest. This is the unending thrill of Shakespeare for me. It is truly transformative. This Hamlet is changing me.