The Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS) performed an outstanding rendition of Hamlet in the Alumnae Auditorium last weekend, making a number of interesting choices as they did so. I was especially struck by the use of only five actors in the whole play and with no director, which is the hallmark of the Actors from the London Stage. Consisting of five British Shakespearean artists from companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Globe Theatre and others, Actors from the London Stage is an education program developed in 1975 that aims to make Shakespeare’s words exert their magic and power in performance, by in a vital and perhaps unconventional way. This means that the play was rehearsed by the actors, working together to create theatre, cooperating with each other in their imaginative engagement with the play’s words. Having just five actors switching roles and emoting on stage made the ‘play within a play’ aspect of Hamlet more pronounced, and also kept reminding the audience that it was a play. But at the same time, one actor playing multiple characters confused me as an audience member, and if I had not already read the play or known the characters and story, I may have had difficulty understanding what was happening in the play.
Grace Andrews played the Second Player in the Murder of Gonzago as well as Guildenstern and Ophelia while Peter Bray played the First Player and Polonius, and both had several other smaller roles. This goes for all five actors. It was amazing to see one actor quickly switch from one character to another within a single scene, using various interesting methods such as different props for costumes, along with voice modulation and changing their actual position on stage. I think that this kept the audience on their toes and kept reminding us that every piece of dialogue was deliberate and significant to the play in some way. This showed that the play was self-aware and even aided in providing suspense, exposing the truth and finally leading up to its climax. For example, “The Mousetrap” is specifically chosen by Hamlet for its plot of “brother kills king and marries the widow queen,” to guilt Claudius into revealing that he did kill his brother, the old King Hamlet. A meta-play, this mirrors the choice of the play Hamlet to use the inset play to confirm the suspicions of Hamlet to the audience watching the play. This mirroring nature was particularly obvious in the performance due to the continuous role switching. This aspect was also effective in revealing the similarity between characters and helping to create a drama in which experiences are constantly multiplied — there are four grieving children, Hamlet, Fortinbras, Ophelia and Laertes, two suicidal mourners, Hamlet and Ophelia, and two revengers, Hamlet and Laertes. Furthermore, having only five actors who never left the stage emphasizes that the play had only one setting, the Elsinore castle in Denmark.
While having five actors perform a larger number of characters was especially effective in narrating the plot of the play in a surprising and fun manner, it was less effective in creating clarity for the audience. Several times, actors would switch roles within one conversation and talk with themselves as different characters. This technique confused me and I had to think back to my prior knowledge of the play. For example, when Ophelia and Laertes were played by the same actor speaking to each other, it seemed to take away from the realism and disoriented me. The props and costumes, like in one instance a jacket, helped to clarify things but I think there was still always a little uncertainty.
Overall, the Actors from the London Stage put on a fabulous performance with a unique interpretation and writing style. I would never have known there was no director had I not been told so! As their visits are an annual tradition, I’d definitely recommend attending next year’s AFTLS production.