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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Parodies Found; Hamlet in Performance/Pennington Book
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0121. Thursday, 15 February 1996.

(1)     From:   Fran Teague <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 16:37:44 EST
        Subj:   Parodies Found

(2)     From:   Mark Fisher <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 12:47:23 +0000
        Subj:   Hamlet in performance/Pennington book


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Fran Teague <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 16:37:44 EST
Subject:        Parodies Found

For any SHAKSPER-subscribers in the Houston area, there will be a chance to see
a wonderful parody. We just received an announcement of "the ninth quadrennial
production of HELLO HAMLET, a musical tragedy in too many acts." It runs March
21-23 and 27-29 at Wiess College of Rice University. I have happy memories of
this one and would love to know if it's still as good as I remember its being.

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mark Fisher <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 12:47:23 +0000
Subject:        Hamlet in performance/Pennington book

Here's the full text of an article I wrote for The Herald (Glasgow) which was
published in edited form on 13 February. It's a combined review of Michael
Pennington's *Hamlet: A User's Guide* and an interview with Tom McGovern who
played Hamlet at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh last year:

WHENEVER we put together kitchen units, wire up a hi-fi or load up a new
computer programme, we have no hesitation in turning to the manual for help.
Yet when you put together a production of a play, you're left to piece the bits
together pretty much by yourself. Even when that play is one of the most
frequently performed works in the English language - as is the case with Hamlet
- there is little opportunity for one performer to pass on those useful tips
about how the thing works, what the best way to treat it is and what to do when
the warrantee runs out.

True, there are endless shelf-loads of academic treatises on the work of
Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, but your average actor, operating from
the heart not the head, tends to be suspicious of anything born in the privacy
of the study instead of the limelight of the stage. Very belatedly the world of
drama studies has come to realise that scripts need to be understood in terms
of performance not in terms of literature, but it is still the case that the
bulk of an actor's learning is done through stage experience not through
solitary study.

There is, however, a middle line and it is one that actor Michael Pennington
has struck in his book, Hamlet: A User's Guide, published last week. Here is
just such a manual to help you piece together the nuts and bolts of
Shakespeare's tragedy, written not from the airy perspective of a university
professor, but the practical viewpoint of a performer who has appeared in
Hamlet five times, twice in the lead role.

He knows it inside out. And he knows it in a way that is, for all his
perceptivity and insight, fundamentally down-to-earth. This is an artisan's
analysis - certainly not above warning the prospective director against cutting
a scene in case he should lose its emotional resonance, but just as likely to
recommend a cut for the pragmatic reason that without it the show will run to
half-past eleven.

In short, it's something any actor - and indeed any audience - could learn
from, achieving the considerable feat of sharing a lucid and practical
understanding of the play without imposing a directorial vision or standing in
the way of new imaginative interpretations. He does this with a clear-sighted
admiration for Shakespeare, celebrating the playwright for his unerring
dramatic instinct even while he picks apart the logical inconsistencies of the
plot. Take this on Gertrude's speech after the death of Ophelia: "The hoary old
question - why didn't she save her instead of watching her drown? - is best
left in the Green Room, since we know by now that Shakespeare will sacrifice
anything for a good speech. A modern playwright wouldn't get away with it."

Pennington isn't above the quest for knowledge - on the contrary, his book is
rich in historical facts and background information - and he has managed,
despite his familiarity, to remain sensitive to and enthusiastic about
Shakespeare's innovations, like the unexpected positioning of the coarse
grave-digging scene immediately after the suicide of Ophelia. His reference
points are wide - he gets the Oresteia and the Lion King into a single sentence
- and his advice is sound - "These are beautiful lines that should not be
spoken beautifully," he warns at one point.

And what comes across most forcefully is just how much the character of Hamlet
affects the actor who plays him. Of course, the appeal of the play is
widespread. Even now, Robert Lepage is developing a one-man version in Quebec,
Peter Brook is staging an experimental fragmentation in Paris, and Richard
Demarco is drawing up plans to stage it on the Edinburgh Fringe. Pennington's
book follows only a matter of months after Steven Berkoff's I Am Hamlet (Faber
and Faber) and Anthony B. Dawson's Shakespeare in Performance: Hamlet
(Manchester University Press), which, oddly enough, uses the same RSC picture
of Michael Pennington, circa 1980, on the front. But it is the actor in that
great central role who is ensnared more than anyone by this play. Like
Pennington says, "it changes you for good, and for the better".

That's certainly a sentiment confirmed by Scotland's most recent Hamlet, Tom
McGovern, who played the Dane in the fast-paced Edinburgh Royal Lyceum
production last autumn. When he talks about the character now, he can't help
dropping into the past tense - Hamlet was McGovern's best pal, someone killed
him last December and it hurts. He's over the worst of the mourning now, but
for three or four weeks he knows he was unbearable to live with. The
32-year-old actor, who has taken big roles like Arturo Ui and Dr Faustus in his
stride, has never known a part like it.

"From the day I was asked to do it, my life wasn't the same," he says. "I just
couldn't get him out of my head. I had copies anywhere I might be - at my
mother's, my mother-in-law's, my sister in law's. It was like being given
something to take care of. I cared so much about him, I felt more like a friend
of his even before I started rehearsals. In drama school you're always talking
about degrees of getting away from yourself, and I think it's about as close as
I ever got to being another person."

Finding parallels with the early death of his own father, McGovern found
himself closely identifying with Hamlet's unresolved relationship with the old
king. And from before rehearsals began, the part crept its way into all aspects
of his life. "It manages to envelop you even in your dreams," he says. "My
dreams were phenomenal prior to it, during it, and after. I was having dreams
about my father being in it as the ghost! My wife said I was often reciting in
my sleep. I had one awful dream where I was doing 'To be or not to be,' and
someone in the audience started laughing, I just lay down on the stage and I
woke up crying."

As many actors have testified, the part takes you far beyond personal
identification, and by the time it came to returning home to Glasgow, McGovern
had yet to appreciate just how much Hamlet had become an obsession. "I felt
like I'd lost someone," he says. "I had a bit of a rough time with my wife when
I got home, because it was like someone had died; you had all the memories and
it had meant so much to me for months of my life. I was impossible to live with
and I had to apologise to my wife."

It's a continual source of fascination that this one role, unlike any other,
can so thoroughly absorb an actor. Quite how it could be so is a mystery whose
answer must lie somewhere in the enigmatic character of Shakespeare himself, a
man Pennington describes not only as "a gifted tart, scraping a theatrical
buck," but also as a writer who "anticipated both Samuel Beckett and bepop".
All life is in Hamlet, and a considerable amount of it finds its way into
Pennington's wise and entertaining book.

Hamlet: A User's Guide is published by Nick Hern Books (=A318.99).

Mark Fisher (
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