‘Twas a long night of moving in and out of tragedy, experiencing a myriad of ways to give and receive dreadful news.
It was taxing, to say the least, to hear the 16-line description of Ophelia’s drowning over and over and over again as we cycled everyone through every role in Act 4 scenes 4 and 5 last Wednesday.
After each exit made by a distraught Laertes, we waited to see how Claudius would instruct Gertrude to follow: gently as a loving husband, roughly as a commanding one, or already on his way and including her as an afterthought.
Then, once everyone exited, we snapped out of it, cracked a few jokes, resolved confusion on who was playing whom next– more than once the last round’s Messenger thought they had just been on a break and were eager to usurp a step in the cycle– as we all re-set and ran it again.
Having dropped into these words the day before, we each carried an understanding that, despite Gertrude’s lengthy and flowery (pun intended) description of the horrible events that preceded, there’s so much left unsaid and accounted for.
It came up in discussion that this long speech made by the Queen seems out of character for someone who has often said people should talk, and protest, less.
This discrepancy spun a multitude of possibilities.
Why didn’t Gertrude save Ophelia? Was it not her Queenly place? Did she witness it from a window and it was already too late? Or… did Gertrude have a hand in Ophelia’s death? Is this story true or a cover-up? Is her line “Drowned. Drowned.” carrying the subtext, “that’s the story and we’re sticking to it.”
Or is it all true?
This play leaves so many possibilities for either-or choices. Either Hamlet is aware of Claudius and Polonius listening to his most famous speech, or he’s not. Either Gertrude knew about King Hamlet’s murder or she didn’t. Either Gertrude is telling the truth when she deliver’s the news of Ophelia’s drowning, or she isn’t.
A thrilling part of any Hamlet production is making the choices; many options work, but an actor can only play one at a time.
An especially thrilling part of a Mercury Hamlet performance is that we never know who is going to be making which choices until the cards are drawn. Returning to multiple performances will yield multiple universes created between the lines.
When it comes to building those alternate universes, Gertrude has much room for variation. Ensemble member Corrie Riedl mentioned at a drop-in rehearsal that “she’s there just enough to be ambiguous” while remaining absolutely central to the story.
As ensemble member Amy Gray noted, “Gertrude is a tough nut to crack.”
Personally, I’m caught between whether I want to play her as earnestly innocent and doing the best she can for herself and her country under the circumstances, or as a Queen capable of murder. Frankly, I hadn’t considered how feasible playing her with an evil streak could be until our recent post drop-in discussions.
Side bar, “dropping in” is a rehearsal tool devised by Tina Packer, author of Women of Will, altered slightly by our director, Annie Considine, to fit our purposes. Typically it’s done one-on-one between two characters in a scene. But when we’ve got 13 people each building 20 characters, time is of the essence. Instead of sitting knee to knee, we align ourselves in a circle.
Of the process, ensemble member AC Rakotoniaina had to say:
“Dropping in has been extremely informative. …a safe way to explore the characters and their relationships without having to force any of my own interpretations on them before the characters had a chance to interact with anyone else. Dropping in with groups rather than one-on-one has allowed me to explore the inner worlds of all the characters at once, and the conversations we’ve had afterwards have led me to new discoveries every time.”AC Rakotoniaina
Speaking of those conversations, and back to Gertrude:
Amy and AC are also tossing around thoughts of that darker side of the Queen. Amy pondered, since “King Claudius’s claim to power is only possible through Gertrude’s troth, is she able to act as a more Queenly ruler to the kingdom now? Does she enjoy that power? Did she do un-ladylike things to gain it? Perhaps she did…”
After noting that they were “shocked by how much fun it was to play Gertrude as a murderer, twisting the knife into Laertes’ stomach as she described in visceral detail the circumstances of Ophelia’s death,” AC also altered their perception of the Queen from our last season. This year, they’re “excited to play more with Gertrude dancing between being someone who enjoys bending others to her will and taking what she wants, while also recognizing that appearances mean a lot when you’re the queen of a prince who is a Giant Problem.”
So many decisions to be made.
And we haven’t even gotten to Ophelia’s madness yet. Talk about a myriad of possibilities: how does one behave when they’ve lost so much? That exploration is for next week!