This coming weekend the SJTC will present Hamlet: The Notes as part of the 2015-2016 Canadian Stages: Professional Presentation Series at the BMO Studio Theatre.
This marks the fourth time that the SJTC has offered this classic story to our audiences. In 1998, I directed the play at Imperial Theatre with the amazing Ben Stone (of Zuppa Theatre fame). It was that production that really allowed me to penetrate into the text and gain a deeper understanding of the narrative and the characters. Since then, I have continued to have a love-affair with the work which has made me gravitate towards it whenever the opportunity presented itself.
A number of years later, as part of the SJTC Shakespeare in the Park-inglot series, Sandra Bell directed a pared down, small cast version of the play which was hugely successful. Seeing the play stripped to the bones with a cast of less than 10, somehow made the story even more accessible.
Two years ago – pared down even further – we were thrilled to welcome Raoul Bhaneja as he performed Hamlet Solo, his one man version of the play in which he played every character. Watching him perform the work – on a bare stage – with no special costumes of props – was really quite amazing. His mastery of the language was impeccable. His ability to physically create multiple unique characters was inspired. You can’t help but admire both the clarity of Raoul’s performance and the clarity of Shakespeare’s text. I would highly recommend the show to anyone who gets the opportunity to see it.
Well – here we are again with another take on the Classic story. John Fitzgerald Jay a colleague of mine for many years, has helped put together a unique version in which the actor plays the director and the audience plays the cast of Hamlet. The director leads us through the entire text in the form of giving rehearsal notes. It is an amazing concept and one that I felt we had to share with our audiences.
I’ve known John for some time and I sent him a note to get some insights about the play for him to share in advance of his coming here.
ST: Why theatre? How did you get started?
JJ: I’m in the theatre because I didn’t want to be a doctor. I was studying science at Dalhousie University and hated it. I accidentally got into a play in the summer after my first year of a BSc, and had a great experience, and when it came time to choose my second year science courses I decided to wander over to the theatre department and see what I needed to do to be an actor. I’m still trying to figure it out.
ST: How did you get from there to here? Training? Major career highlights?
JJ: After my studies I moved to London England and set about trying to be a professional. I got to watch some incredible theatre, and also some terrible work, I dug in and eventually started doing some terrible work myself. I guess I had a pretty lucky time really. I stayed for sixteen years and was fortunate enough to work all over the country and also at The Royal National Theatre, and in the West End.
I managed to wheedle my way into some classic English television shows along the way. I suppose sitting next to Arthur Miller as he quietly dozed through late afternoon rehearsals of his play After The Fall was special. A lovely wise man. Difficult play.
I recently went to Paris with my theatre company 404Strand (which is based in Pittsburgh). We created a beautiful theatre piece from a book of poetry by Michael Ondaatje called The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. We rehearsed in Paris and played at the legendary Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. Peter Brook the iconic theatre creator who established the Bouffes was there to welcome us and give us notes. And Michael came over to support us and see the work. I remember sitting in the little cafe in the front of the theatre with Michael Ondaatje and Peter Brook and thinking it probably doesn’t get any better then this. Pretty wonderful. Directors give notes. A lot. Mr Brook gave us beautiful kind notes mostly to do with the difficulties of playing in his amazing old theatre.
ST: Why Hamlet? Of all the great well-known works of Shakespeare and others, why invest this energy into a re-telling of the Hamlet story? What was the initial inspiration?
JJ: My colleague, Dan Jemmett is a brilliant director and Hamlet (the notes) was his idea. He marvelled at the special language we have in the theatre to communicate sometimes quite difficult ideas. And the tactics and trickery often employed by directors to get what they want from actors and technicians. He did a version in France called Macbeth (the notes) it was and is a big success. So we went to Pittsburgh last year to do a version of it in English. After two days of excellent work on it, we met for coffee one morning and Dan said “…..ah the hell with it, we should be doing Hamlet” and so we did that. This is one of the nice things about having your own theatre company, you can change plays whenever you like.
ST: Tell me a bit about the development process?
JJ: Dan and I are both obsessed with Hamlet, I already new all the texts for memory, we have talked about the play for years, and Dan had recently directed it in French at the Comedie Francaise. So we set about creating this theatre piece. In all our work together we improvise a ton. We are able to generate a lot of material in this way, Dan is great at coming up with imaginative scenarios to improvise and is also great at curating the material, all our work is made in this way. The key to our success I guess. We locked ourselves in a studio for three weeks and came up with what you will be seeing. We tested it in Pittsburgh as we usually do, and then made adjustments and had another rehearsal phase in Toronto.
ST: What has the response been to the show in other performances?
JJ: The show itself is largely improvised and is changing and evolving all the time. People seem to love it. There is something for everyone in it. It’s an interesting insight into how theatre is made. The madness. The frustration and the joy. Somehow it also manages to illuminate Shakespeare’s great play in small and interesting ways. It’s fun to perform, and I think pretty fun to watch.
ST: Is your character in the play based on any real-life directors you may have worked with? No need to name names.
JJ: Dan and I have referenced many many directors who we have worked with, versions of the play we have seen, notes we have been given, and problems we have faced in trying to make theatre. It’s all in there.
ST: Can you tell us about your links with Atlantic Canada?
JJ: I love coming back to the Maritimes to work. My family are all in Halifax, and it’s a chance to be around home for a bit and work with people I don’t often get to see. I’ve managed to do a few seasons at the Festival in Antigonish, and the occasional play at the Neptune. This will be my first time working in New Brunswick. I’m delighted. Other notable details Owned a bar (The Cobourg) Started and currently run a men’s fashion accessories business. (Hook and Furl) Curated my neighbourhood’s entry for The Nuit Blanche art show for two years commissioning dozens of new contemporary art installations. Started 404Strand Theatre co in Pittsburgh about ten years ago with Dan Jemmett.
We are all very excited to see Hamlet: the Notes when it plays at the BMO Studio Theatre this coming week. It should be of great interest to lovers of theatre and students of theatre.