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Polonius Production Diary: table talk

We are doing multiple table readings of our script, cutting as we go. It’s interesting—as I’ve said most amateur productions I’ve been associated with skimp on table talk, choosing to use limited time up on foot. The last show I was in (a Twelfth Night, if you’ve joined us recently) did some table talk after blocking the show, which was interesting. We are planning four table rehearsals over two weeks, just reading through the play and talking. It’s interesting, although since I am done an hour before everyone else, I will have to restrain my dead self from gobbling snacks.

Mostly we’ve had questions, rather than answers, at this stage, which is excellent. We are trying things out, seeing how they work. Our Gertrude is unsure how to deal with the post-closet scenes, where she appears to mostly trust Claudius again. Her interaction with Laertes doesn’t seem to reflect concern that he is threatening to, oh, for instance, murder her child. Gertrude is definitely tricky, and I think easier (in a sense) in a version that focuses on the plot as primarily political rather than psychological. The solution of simply playing each scene as written without worry overmuch about consistency would not, I think, be satisfying. Well, anyway.

I leaned, this time, toward portraying Polonius in a harsher, angrier key. I don’t think I’ll stick to that. It would play (My recollection is that is how Richard Briers played it in the Branagh film) but I don’t think it helps tell the Hamlet story as well as a more loving, bewildered reading. I do think that this play is, more than some others, focused on telling the story of one character, and that we who are playing supporting parts need to support that story rather than tell our own. Not that we don’t (or can’t) have consistent and interesting characters, just that the choices we make with those characters should (again, in my opinion) be consistent with Hamlet’s story and not distract from it.

So, f’r’ex—to go back to Gertrude, it’s a legitimate choice from Gertrude’s point of view that after her husband’s death, a cynical and loveless marriage alliance with the new king is her son’s path to the throne. Or, even, that she was complicit in the removal of the old king, her husband, either to allow her to marry her lover, his brother, or to serve other purposes of the actor’s own invention. One could imagine a sharp-eyed Gertrude signing Claudius’ name to the Norway letter while he amiably drinks himself insensible in I,ii and later giving the nod to a henchman to whack Ophelia before coming in and giving that oh-so-practiced speech about the willow that grows aslant the brook. A Gertrude that would have real reason to fear Hamlet, and real reason to fear old Hamlet’s ghost. A Gertrude that Claudius was afraid of, enough to set his mind to a subtle plot to assassinate Hamlet without her noticing. Such a Gertrude might be consistent with the text (allowing for deliberate lies, of course), fascinating to watch and totally distracting from the Hamlet story.

One of the acting books I read, probably the Practical Handbook, talked about working within the givens of a part. Those givens may be things like the gender, age, time frame, setting, occupation, language, costume and possibly physical appearance—whatever the playwright has told you about the character, possibly coupled with whatever the director has decided. Within those restrictions, the actor has a wide latitude to decide on motivations, relationships, pace, movement and other aspects of character creation. I have come to think that we should include with the givens the characters purpose within the story. This is far from universally accepted, but I find it helpful. Is the character the antagonist, the advisor, the sidekick… Polonius is in some sense Fifth Business, but rather than having some important message to deliver, his place in the story is essentially to heighten everybody’s tension until he is killed, and then his death wrecks everyone’s plans, either directly or indirectly. There’s a fair amount of latitude to work with, but those are the primary things that I think Polonius is for. Well, and comic relief, too—I don’t think it would be right to decide to make Polonius not funny. So three things, really: get the laughs that are in the script, heighten the tensions between the characters, and get killed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Some thoughts -- Another function that Polonius performs is to show what is rotten in Denmark. That function is diminished if the "By indirections find directions out" dialogue is cut, as it has been in your script, but it still manifests in other ways. However loving and bewildered Polonius is, he thinks that proper behavior for a parent is to have his servant investigate his son and lie about him strategically in order to uncover possible misbehavior. He thinks it proper behavior to make his daughter an accessory to espionage, using her very fraught romantic relationship with a madman as a political tool. The fact that he may be, in some intentional sense, benevolent doesn't make him any less morally bankrupt, and the fact that he sees his moral bankruptcy as political wisdom does not help matters. Hamlet, who is living in a constant state of moral outrage about the rottenness of Denmark, despises Polonius for this very reason: he embodies political and moral corruption, and he is a willing, oblivious accessory of Claudius's corruption. Now, a "psychological" approach to Hamlet may not have much to say about this aspect of the play, depending on how much this approach wants to include moral outrage among the drivers of Hamlet's passions. However, I think it still presents an interesting angle for the actor playing Polonius to work on to consider how he normalizes his appalling behavior and justifies it to himself as wisdom.

It may not be useful for the actor playing Gertrude to consider this, but one reason that Gertrude's part can be tricky is that it is written in three different ways in the last two acts of the three "original" Hamlets. In the first Quarto (the "bad" Quarto), Gertrude is explicitly working with Horatio in support of Hamlet (there are several bits in there that are rarely used in the theater, unless the production is going all in on a Q1 Hamlet). Neither the second Quarto nor the first Folio retain this element, but they differ subtly but significantly in the extent to which the action aligns Gertrude with Claudius. I don't have all the details of the textual differences at my fingertips, but the ambiguity of modern texts comes partly from the need to steer between these two versions. Thus, the way the modern text is edited and the way the acting script is cut can have very significant impacts in how Gertrude's allegiances and feelings in the latter part of the play are characterized. As is often the case with Hamlet, playing the scene "as written" is often an insufficient solution, because the production has to decide how to write the scene. Just to give one example, in 4.5, there is no exit for Gertrude prior to the end of the scene: she appears to be included in the final exeunt. She does not speak, however, after Ophelia's entrance. Does she stay to the end of the scene, or not? Ophelia's exit is also not marked, but it seems clear that she must exit after saying "God buy you." Should Gertrude exit with Ophelia? If she remains on stage, does she hear Claudius say, "And where th' offense is, let the great axe fall"? If she hears it, how does she react? Does Claudius know that she hears it? There's a large number of radically divergent options here that are all potentially playable. Pretty much every Hamlet I have seen has taken a different tack here. It's tricky, and not just for the Gertrude.

It's interesting—Our Director said, at the first read-through, that we should pay close attention to the punctuation, which I think of as the sort of thing a person says who has decided that the First Folio is the "real" script. But we're using as our base an amalgamation (as most do) and I spotted with her stuff last night a book comparing the various texts (do they call it a parallel in Shakespeare Studies?). Anyway, you make an excellent point. We have Gertrude still on-stage for the "great axe fall" line, which was indeed giving her trouble. My own tendency is to accept what the director (or producer or whatever) hand me as the "real" script, with variations available for background research much the same as versions of the story by other authors, but that's cheating, in a way.


It's appropriate for the actor to accept what the director provides as the real script--that's the text that defines the given circumstances for the character. When that text itself is an amalgam of other texts, however, it may create difficulties for the actors if those involved in assembling the text (editors, dramaturgs, directors) haven't resolved all of the potential inconsistencies created by merging variants and by making cuts.

In the case of Gertrude being on stage for the "great axe fall" line, there is a very reasonable argument to be made that the play is designed for her to be absent for that line, but that the exit cue didn't make it into the printed text. So, if being on stage for that bit is problematic for this Gertrude, it's reasonable for the director to re-consider her being on stage: it can't be argued that having her on stage is essential to the design of the character. On the other hand, if Gertrude is left on stage for that scene, it can be played as a moment that shifts her feelings or that crystallizes for her for the first time the stakes for her son, aligning her clearly with him rather than with Claudius. I have seen it played that way. The shoe may be on the other foot, however, if she is played as being clearly complicit in that moment and accepts what Claudius says as right and proper. I, myself, don't see that way of playing Gertrude's presence in that scene as consistent with her behavior in 5.2. I don't see how 5.2 can be played as written with a Gertrude who has effectively agreed to her son's death, but if one wanted that Gertrude, one could tinker with 5.2 to make it work. If it's a choice, then, of modifying one scene or the other to achieve consistency, I would incline toward tinkering with a scene where there is a strong possibility of printing error rather than toward making substantial changes to another scene so that it plays far differently from how it was obviously written.

On the whole, once a production has decided to modify a Shakespeare script, it's hard to justify not using how things go in rehearsal as a potential basis for further modification, within reason, to get a performance that works.

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