In this week’s visit to dissertation corner, Tia Byer speaks to current student Phil Price.
By George Moss
As part of their recent visit to York St John, RSC actors Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon led multiple workshops on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Hamlet is a tale of madness, love, revenge, death, incestuousness and secrecy. When the king unexpectedly dies, his son the Prince of Denmark finds his destiny drastically altered and his rightful throne occupied by his uncle, Claudius. His father’s spirit returns and reveals his own murder, stoking a fire for revenge in his son that will thrust Hamlet down a twisted path of misery and deception.
After arranging us into a relaxed semi-circle, Nixon began the workshop by breaking down its structure: “We thought it might be useful with this session to maybe share a little bit about our experience of being in Hamlet for a long period of time with the RSC. I played Ophelia and Al played Horatio […] and then maybe we would just do half an hour of looking at the nunnery scene, in a very condensed way, and just go through how we might play with the text in a rehearsal room, which will be a little bit of audience participation. Don’t worry, we’ll get you all up on stage! Does that sound okay?” Heads shot down here with nervous chuckling by all, anxious fidgeting erupting across the room. Waldmann piled in on the gag, quipping: “Too late now, get up lock the door!” The jokes were soothing, and the room was now set to discuss the play with a comfortable determination.
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) November 24, 2016
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) 24 November 2016
As promised, the duo started by reflecting on their shared relationship with Hamlet. Nixon and Waldmann performed Hamlet with the RSC in 2013, under director David Farr. Nixon offered a detailed description of the setting, along with her own approach, explaining the play was “set in a fencing school. In a very posh house or a school? It was quite difficult to determine where this room was, but it was all set in this one room. I felt quite lucky playing Ophelia in this production, because a lot of actresses want to play her but she is such a difficult part because there are so many missing scenes. Like one minute you see her cut up about Hamlet, and the next minute she’s gone mad, and that’s a massive leap for an actress.” However, no matter where Nixon leaped, she always reached the other side. Ophelia has often been portrayed as something of a slippery snake, and the technicalities of grasping the character seem equally as challenging. It was after all the actor’s responsibility to give the audience something comprehensible to latch onto in the whirlwind madness. This was achieved, according to Nixon, by really interrogating the question, “what does madness mean to us? What does madness mean to us at the time?” Waldmann added firmly that “the most interesting thing in [Hamlet] was Pippa’s version of Ophelia. In real life, people that are mad don’t necessarily think they’re mad. That’s what makes them scary. They think they’re right, and that everyone else is wrong. It’s the certainty thing, Hamlet can never be sure that [his father] is a ghost, and that’s what makes him sane […] What made Pippa’s version of Ophelia really moving is because everyone else was mad because they didn’t understand ‘the owl was a bakers daughter’, but there was a certainty in that I’m going to get married.” This is an unsettling, complicated role reversal. Madness is treated as a power, as a tool that can evolve and conquer. It is a startling prospect, the gaps in Ophelia’s appearances and psychology partially filled in by infesting and tainting the thought processes of others.
Both Nixon and Waldmann were keen to get to the centre of the characters’ mentalities during the workshop. They provided a clear way of unpacking the character’s psychology, by analyzing the “nunnery” scene. In the play, this scene comes shortly after the famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. After plucking up our courage to engage with two esteemed acting veterans, we slowly gained traction in creating a sizable list of potential character actions. Nixon elaborated that this process was called: “actioning […] and you would do this on each line or each thought, but we thought we would do it just for the overall peice right now. An action is like a verb, a doing word, of something that I would be doing to Al as Ophelia, as Ophelia what would I be doing to Hamlet. Maybe I would be imploring, or maybe I would be seducing, or humiliating. So we thought maybe we could bounce some ideas of each other.” There is a huge range of options and avenues to explore here, and it is easy to see how Shakespeare becomes so adaptable when this exercise is engaged with properly. Many of the actions we interpreted in the scene sometimes contradicted with another, but such contradictions can in turn spark further variations of Hamlet. Waldmann confirmed this, describing how “we’re using the same words, but depending on what action you play, it can completely change the way those words come alive. When you see boring Shakespeare, you just see a lot of people standing on stage trying to make it sound nice. And when you see good acting, or good Shakespeare – I’m talking to you now because we want to excite you and educate you and inspire you, I’m not just talking for the sake of it. I want my words to change you in some way. And the same way in any scene in any play, people and the characters are talking to each other because they’re saying ‘I need you to understand this about me. I was hungover too, I was drunk last night as well.'”
Following that poetic description of a dialogue, it was time to get stuck in! As a group, we brainstormed many variations of Hamlet and Ophelia’s actions during the infamous nunnery scene. Waldmann and Nixon patiently explored a few different variations, explaining that “what Ophelia is feeling is less important than what she is trying to do. Often in life we cover up what we’re really feeling to try and win the argument.” From that moment, our list of actions and reactions grew exponentially. For Hamlet to Ophelia: to humiliate, seduce, reject, punish, to implore. From Ophelia’s actions to Hamlet: to manipulate, provoke, irritate, degrade and to mock. Nixon then explained the interconnections of each action and how they feed into one another: “You guys will choose one now for both of us to play, and it might be like, mine might be to manipulate, but within manipulation I might have a moment of seducing or blocking. There are different actions within that main action.” In a special one-time treat for the group, or what Waldmann described as their catchy “world premiere of Hamlet provoking Ophelia humiliating”, Nixon and Waldmann began to act out our choices. Waldmann was to be Ophelia and Nixon to assume the role of Hamlet for the first round. However, what followed was near indescribable. They weaved their way through the crowd, poked and prodded each other, grappled on tables, banged on keyboards and erupted with hysterical laughter as they performed the scene, using their physicality to expand the meaning of the language. Their humour was natural and their acting compelling, giving a flavour of how Shakespeare’s text can evolve not only through history, but in the present, precise moment.
— Julie (@julie_raby) November 26, 2016
Thanks in no small part to Shakespeare: Perspectives tutors Julie Raby and Saffron Walking, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon generously put in time and effort to bolster York St John’s understanding of Shakespeare. This was no ‘tick the box’, run of the mill drop in – they spent time with York St John because they care about the material and they care about how it is comprehended. That passion and level of commitment is wonderfully infectious, enriching York St John’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s words have stayed with many throughout their lifetime. In the case of Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon, theirs will also stay with us long throughout our own.
By George Moss
Hot on the heels from multiple RSC visitors, two of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most decorated actors Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon paid a valuable visit at York St John to unpack the evolution of Shakespeare’s King John and the true meaning of theatre.
Waldmann and Nixon met during the 2012 RSC production of King John at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre, directed by the magnificent Maria Aberg. The RSC’s plug for the play is that: “King John explores inheritance and illegitimacy and the subsequent political deals and struggle for power. It is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.” In retrieving the play from this obscurity, Waldmann starred as King John whilst Nixon performed as The Bastard, the two central characters.
— Shakespeare @YSJ (@ShakespeareYSJ) 24 November 2016
Waldmann, Nixon and the rest of the company created their production from an enthusiastic foundation. Nixon found rehearsals compelling from the start, stating that the “rehearsal room was one of the most creative and brave spaces that I’ve certainly ever been involved in. That play [King John] was a big risk.” Risks and challenges are vital terms frequently found in an actor’s vocabulary, and it is the sense of risk that keeps a play feeling rejuvenated and fresh. After all, if Shakespeare himself was ‘creative’ and ‘brave’ in the writing of his work, then surely the best way to honour this is by following suit. Rather than striving to re-create past performances or simply adding another familiar iteration, the company rightly wanted to add another link in a four hundred year-old chain. As King John is rarely performed, the cast’s previous exposure to the text was limited. Waldmann himself readily confessed that, “I didn’t really get the play [King John], it’s one of his [Shakespeare’s] least familiar plays […] it didn’t really make any sense to me”, a shaky start for a lead actor. Nixon similarly added that, “I didn’t know anything about King John. I’d never seen it, never read it.” This is what fueled the creativity of the aforementioned creative rehearsals, putting a face on the unknown. The ingenuity of the company allowed the production to transform from a place of skepticism and mild dissatisfaction to a natural evolution of King John, a fresh creation. Nixon spoke of director Maria Aberg’s own perspective: “she found it quite impenetrable I think, and for her, making The Bastard a female character and having this particular relationship with King John, and conflating Hubert with The Bastard, sort of made sense for her.” This genius change in the character propelled the production into uncharted territory. Distancing their production from preconceived parameters, their King John began to breathe a life of its own. This is something that Waldmann reaffirmed in a moment of realisation: “All of a sudden the play came to life to me, and made sense, and it all felt that it centered around this intense, destructive complex relationship between King John and The Bastard. Whereas in the original play you get to see these two people at the beginning and at the end, and in the middle their relationship disappears. So suddenly the play made sense to me.” Not only did they unearth a sense of a more linear narrative, but the play was rooted deeper in a vividly intelligible exploration of relationships. Both Waldmann and Nixon still rank this piece and their efforts as ones they are extremely proud of, and with very good reason.
— Dr Adam James Smith (@elementaladam) 24 November 2016
Not only were the gender paradigms shifted, but the duo’s approach to Shakespeare’s language was also insightful. Where does language end and the character begin? Do they intersect? Is language always reliable? These are questions which layer any production with depth and complexity. Waldmann explained his observation that: “people get obsessed by the words, but often we say the opposite of what we feel […] the language betrays what we’re really feeling […] you’ve got this template, and it’s about finding a way of bringing those words to life.” Though Shakespeare’s mastery of language is often heralded, it would be fair to say that his language has become an entity of its own. As Shakespeare continues to be adapted, Shakespeare’s words are difficult to comprehend to the uninitiated, and deeper meanings are difficult to discover. To combat this, language must not be a confinement to character, but a sandbox to play in. Pippa Nixon spoke about this in great length, stating, “to have the modern meet the classical is great, because I always found there was a slight veil between speaking ‘it’ and feeling ‘it’ and suddenly with The Bastard, because we did so much detailed work about who these people are, the character starts coming alive so much that the text is just a way to access that character […] And that got brought into As You Like It completely, then Ophelia in Hamlet and then it’s gone on to Ariel in The Tempest. It feels like that work had unlocked something, it unlocked this reverence to Shakespeare’s texts and it’s incredibly elastic, you can stretch it and pull it and throw it across the room.” Shakespeare is often thought to be on an untouchable pedestal; that the only way to understand him is through an enormous supply of ‘highbrow’ intellect. But this is not the case at all: you simply need to be in touch with your humanity.
“people miss the excitement and the danger of the stories”
Shakespeare’s plays are in large part studies on the human condition. Do academic dissections eclipse all the fun? Waldmann seemed to think so to an extent, stating that “people miss the excitement and the danger of the stories” when the mechanics of a text override the thematic essence. Expectations invade the sense of wonder, of spontaneity and creativity that the theatre strives to fuel. Waldmann notes that, when it comes to accessibility, companies are “trying, but part of it is to do with the performance style, where ‘I don’t really understand what you’re saying, and you’re not a human being, so I don’t really care – I’d rather go and watch something modern, a telly programme.'” It seems from here there is only one way to go, and that is to update the tactics of putting on a show. Shakespeare interrogated the sociopolitical climate of his own era, and it is now time to adapt his work to fit within our own understanding of our world. Nixon shared this sentiment, that some Shakespeare productions today are: “not feeling like it’s evolving and going to more exciting spaces and places”, and this presents a ceiling that can only be shattered by the creative industry. After all, as Waldmann concurred, the theatre is not a museum, but an arena of innovation.
Shakespeare is for all, not only to be studied rigorously by select few, but also to serve its most basic, original purpose: to entertain everybody. Waldmann and Nixon carry this torch high and proud, and it pays off in their audience feedback, according to Waldmann. After a Saturday Matinee performance, Waldmann was beckoned over by a heavily tattooed man from Salford. “I was like oh god, this is it, I am gonna get beaten up before tonight’s show. He said he was from Salford and got dragged down [to the play] by his in-laws and had never been to the theatre before. He said, ‘I didn’t really understand what you’re saying all the time, but I fucking loved that’. And it meant more than any peers saying that.”
Through the fundamental decency of Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon, the inherent creativity and humanity of the theatre will seldom be forgotten. Shakespeare would surely approve.
Two upcoming events for current third years
On Wednesday 30th November we will be holding a Dialogue Day from 2.30-5pm in SK128. This is an opportunity for you to offer some vital feedback on your engagement with your Literature and Creative Writing Programmes, learn more about prospective careers paths, and reflect on your learning so far. This is intended to be a helpful and informative session to help you during your final year of study, and there will lots of opportunities for group work and discussion. Most importantly, there will be tea, coffee, and cake served for everyone! Please email Anne-Marie (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to book a place.
Did we mention the cake part yet?
After the Dialogue Day, we’ll be holding an MA Information Evening for anyone interested in applying for the MA in Contemporary Literature or the MA in Creative Writing here at YSJ. This will take place on Wednesday 30th November at 5pm in SK037. You will have a chance to hear about the modules on offer, and ask any questions that you might have about postgraduate study. There will be wine and nibbles served at 5pm. Please email Anne-Marie (email@example.com) if you would like to book a place.
Every October, Black History Month is celebrated all over the UK, and has been for the past thirty-five years. This is an opportunity for us all to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, and learn more about our shared histories and cultures. At York St John this year, academics working in Literature, History, American and Education and Theology have come together to launch the official YSJ Black History Month Twitter account. If you’re not already following is on Twitter, please do so!
The Twitter account is a celebration of black histories and cultures, and aims to highlight black achievement and accomplishment. If you follow the account, you’ll see a range of topics to explore. One of the most popular elements has been the playlist collated by lecturer in Literature (and resident DJ) Dr Fraser Mann. From ground-breaking pieces by Goldie and Massive Attack to classics from Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry, there is a fantastic selection of music to (re)discover.
Students have been getting involved with the project as well, tweeting their favourite lines from poetry (work by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay has been particularly popular) and offering some reflections on learning about black literary history and the Harlem Renaissance. History students have noted how their study of William Cuffay and black Chartism also has a wider resonance with Black History Month.
It’s been great to see this project grow over the past few weeks as more and more followers choose to get involved with the Twitter account. We hope this continues to grow. Black History Month is hugely important for everyone. It allows to focus on a positive present and future whilst acknowledging some of the horrors of the past. We hope that @YSJBHM continues to allow our YSJ community to reflect on this and to raise awareness about these important issues.
If you have any queries about Black History Month, please contact Dr Anne-Marie Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org)