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) 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.
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.