Director's Notes - Hamlet (2009)

Shakespeare was first and foremost a popular dramatist; he has an exuberant and irreverent theatricality which is often undervalued in the disproportionate focus on his colossal dramatic ability – (especially and ironically in the English-speaking world). We try to value both his drama and his theatricality. But we don’t use gimmicks – the theatricality in our productions derives from Shakespeare’s texts.

We set Hamlet in an imaginary Denmark after a bloodless coup in which the far right/neo-nazis have taken over the state, & usurped the monarchy. This reiterates Hamlet’s original dilemma, where the liberal humanist confronts the bloody & barbaric imperatives of feudal clan duty. The offensive iconography is accurate, and used by a xenophobic and extremist minority in Denmark today.

From  discussions with the director:

Q: Firstly, we were interested in the neo-Nazi context: after reading the brochure we understand this to be a reflection of the modern day return to the xenophobic values of the democratic socialists which have resurfaced due to the increased immigration and multiculturalism entering the traditional colonist countries of northern and western Europe. Could you elucidate on this for us (I might be completely misguided...!)

You refer to my programme notes correctly in para. 1, but I think it would be more accurate to say ’ national socialists’ - whence comes the German acronym ‘Nazi’ (National Sozialistische Partiei Deutschlands), from memory. The iconography of the production & the way it is intended to reflect, in modern terms, the dilemma facing Hamlet in Early Modern England, as it was in transition from Catholic feudalism to a Protestant mercantile society with emerging individualistic and humanist values, is explained in my programme notes. I’m not sure what further explanation you would like.

Q: Secondly, we found the female casting of Hamlet interesting. Added to this was the presentation of Hamlet’s madness and the explicit body language and exploration of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. Could you explain how you wished to represent the character of Hamlet to the audience.

When I originally cast Angela (in an earlier production), I simply chose the best actor at the call-back session. But since Shakespeare was writing female roles for boy actors, womens’ roles – at least up the middle of his  career – are relatively limited (such roles as Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth & Cleopatra were still to come). Since, both in terms of setting & character, Shakespeare has always demanded an active imaginative participation on the part of the audience, I don’t see why this should not still be the case – if we could imaginatively engage with a boy playing a woman (Cleopatra) who says, among other things, ‘Think on me that am/With Phoebus’ amorous pinches black/And wrinkled deep in time’ (the sexiest woman Shakespeare wrote), why should we not now bring an equally generous imagination to a woman playing Hamlet? Why should women be denied the opportunity to play the great Shakespearean roles, provided that they are good enough. The difference between Angela & Damien’s performances are those of nuance only.

‘Explicit body language’ I don’t quite understand. Do you mean sexually explicit behaviour? If so, then all I do is translate into contemporary terms, moments that would (probably) have been more purely verbal for Shakespeare’s original audiences, but still confronting.

How I wished to present Hamlet to an audience is so general a question as to defy answer. Suffice it to say that Hamlet is made up of contradictions, which is where his enduring fascination lies. Bad writers write superficially plausible and consistent characters, and equally, bad actors endeavour to make characters plausible according to our shallow contemporary psychology preconceptions.

Director's Notes - The Tempest (2007)

I had three main ambitions when I began working of Shakespeare's final solo work, The Tempest. The first was a very simple one: I wanted to tell the story of the play clearly. When I initially saw it, I had no bloody idea what was going on despite being a quite capable audience member. Who were all these strange grey men? What are the family relationships between them? Who is grieving who, and who has what to gain?


Another ambition was to restore the masque's dramatic centrality. It's often cut completely from productions or reduced to less than twelve lines. This is, I reckon, a mistake, and not just because a modern audience doesn't relish the Roman religious system. I suspected that just as the banquet scene represents all the action of the play's final denouement in ironic miniature, the masque is where the thematic content of the play is given its purest and most dreamlike outing. Also, Prospero must learn from the masque that, like insubstantial players, 'we are such stuff as dreams are made on', and the exit we take from this life is one of sublime finality. This has a massive impact on what he decides to do: to the visitors, to his daughter, to himself.


My last ambition was to renege on the operatic tradition and restore a male Ariel to the Aussie stage. It's simply been too long. Some of it, no doubt, has to do with Ariel asking Prospero if he loves him. Some of it also has to do with modern concerns about casting. There were other, I thought, no less transformative and pronoun twisting ways of getting a second woman in the cast. Hence, goodbye to one of those grey men and hello Antonia.


There were, of course, other things. I thought a lot about the Blackfriar's tradition of singing songs between acts while the stage candles were re-lit. I thought about David Bowie, the Nine Inch Nails and our modern pastoral and romantic traditions. I thought about dreams and their centraility in all of Shakespeare's works and how Enya, that dark mistress of Celtic twee, is the world's most powerful aural sedative. I wondered why Aussie directors, despite recent public conversation, don't cast more imaginatively: with an eye to doublings that enlargen the thematic grammar of the play; with casting choices that maximise a play rather than wither it through a very nineties and domestic vision of race and gender. I wondered and tried to do my bit, again.


Mostly, however, I thought about how I might tell the story of Shakespeare's final, most rich and strange dream as clearly as I could. I hope you enjoy what we've all come up with.



Director’s Notes - King Lear (2007)

This production of King Lear is built upon 3 excellent productions by Michael Pigott, themselves informed by previous productions from our company. Chance seems to have punished me with Lear, and Lear with me, as actor & director. Then again, it’s probably the most extraordinary drama ever written, & I discover something rich & strange at each encounter.


I’d like to make two points :


First, I firmly believe that Shakespeare, was a theatrical genius – a popular entertainer. That he is unmatched as a dramatic poet is beyond question. However the reverence that this excites too often overshadows his theatricality, his robust popular appeal (particularly in the anglophone world !). So we’ve tried to celebrate the theatricality as well as the drama. In both instances, of course, one has to translate this 400 year old piece into terms accessible today. But I like to think that our theatricality is not gimmicky, as is often the case ; it’s grounded in the text and structure of the original.


Second, I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare was a theorist, a philosopher or theologian. He wrote and took part in plays which entertained, provoked, questioned & disturbed. He lived, as they say, in interesting times.


The play it seems to me, probes away at deeply troubling issues. In an epoch where the sense of self and its place in the cosmos was shifting in response to the spread of protestantism, of literacy, and of a suspicion that the earth  was not at the centre of things, basic questions arose : ‘who is it that can tell me who I am ?’ - ‘is man no more than this ?’ - is ‘unaccommodated man’ no more than ‘a poor, bare, forked animal’ ? ‘Is this the promised end ?’ Will ‘the gods defend her’ ?


And the inevitable corollary : what is woman ? Elizabeth I had just died childless. The denial of maternity provokes profound unease in this world dominated by fathers. Mothers are conspicuous by their absence. Sterility is a recurrent undertone. Shakespeare’s final stage image : a barren wasteland. 3 young women dead. Childless. Cursed by their father. Images of families, cities and countries laid waste by blind fools haunt us today, too. ‘In the land of the blind’*… Maybe it’s still a warning.

* Moir, SMH, most days…

David Ritchie - Director - King Lear Harlos Productions 2007

From previous years’ discussions with directors:

The following are some commonly asked questions about our productions of Lear and their answers:

Q: What was the purpose of the oriental theme?

I have always thought that to understand King Lear that you have to present it in a context where the world of the play is tangible for a modern audience. If we do not understand the structures of the society in which the play is set then we do not understand the actions of the characters, particularly Lear himself. The whole play hinges on one vital moment (Cordelia’s banishment) the significance of which is very hard to convey to a modern audience as is the inappropriateness of Cordelia’s comments to the King.

One of the origins of the oriental theme came from a desire to create a world where the hierarchy and the respect for ones elders was very clear, a society that is very structured and rigid so that it makes perfect sense for Lear to become angry with Cordelia when she says ‘nothing’.  You find the order and respect for elders all through south-east Asia and in particular, in ancient Japanese culture. I think that a modern Australian audience somehow has a more direct route to these ancient cultures than to a Shakespearean Europe so it is much easier for us to understand why the characters do what they do within this world.

The other origin for the oriental theme was my own passion for Japanese theatre styles. We did not try and emulate these styles as traditionally they take many years to master but simply considered how they were very different to our own performance styles and that in making even the smallest alterations to our performance we were able to convey a huge amount of meaning.

Q. Is your production sympathetic to Lear the character, or was the emphasis more on the evil of the daughters?

The aim of the production was to show the motivation behind every characters actions not classify them as either good or evil in an absolute sense. The beauty of Shakespeare’s characters, particularly in this play, is the fact that he often provides justification for a character’s actions. It was our aim to provide moments where the audience could empathize with the traditionally ‘evil’ characters or at least see their perspective. A good example of this is the attempt to show two subjective views of Lear’s knights. One as Lear sees them, a jovial and loyal group of companions and as Gonerill sees them, a band of riotous monkeys.

Q. Which of the major themes of the play were you trying to highlight?

The main theme that we explored in our production was the question of what happens in a society when there is a power shift that coincides with a generational shift. On of the major themes in Lear is power and its used and abused. The story of Lear in these terms seems to be that Lear, a very powerful King, creates a vacuum by giving all his power away to a younger generation who is not really ready to have the responsibility. The whole idea of this power shift is the movement from the order and rigidity of the choreographed movements in our first scene to the void at the end of the play where there are only two of the main characters left alive.

Q. What was the purpose of only using 7 actors?

The idea of only using 7 actors came out of the notion of wanting to look at theatre as storytelling. I have always been fascinated by the story of Lear. I had the idea that if you stripped back the elements of performance to the bare essentials needed to tell a story people could not help but be drawn into it. I ended up deciding on seven because that was about the minimum number you could use whilst still giving each actor the same sized share of the story. What we found as a result of restricting ourselves to only 7 actors was a freedom beyond anything that we could have imagined. It forced us to come up with ideas that we would never have dreamt of had we not decided to work in that way.

Q. What were the staging advantages of the minimalist approach?

The choice to use seven actors highlighted a number of things about theatre for me. Most of what happens within the theatre happens in the minds of audience members. When we watch a show our minds are working without us knowing. They are building images and connections that are triggered by what we are seeing on stage. I found that by using a minimalist approach to the staging you can change scene, character and situation at the drop of a hat. When this happens it means that you have a continual mental stimulus that the audience can use to process the number of images within the production thus making them feel involved in the play.

Q. Did you have any other approach, such as humanist or feminist or political or family oriented? What was your overall approach?

It is very hard to answer this question. As I have already stated the play is about so many things that you can sometimes do it disservice to say it is about one particular theme. The overall approach that I took was to explore the play moment by moment. The actors and I worked very hard to find how each scene worked. Once we found out what was happening in each scene we were able to mould them into the framework that we had come up with. This way of working means that each scene can have a number of different themes, for example, the cliff scene is as much about love as it is about despair. If you consider the number of different themes within each moment of the play then you construct a performance that has many layers to it.  What you have then is a play that does not answer all the questions that it asks of its audience, this means, that when you leave the theatre you are still asking those same questions.

  1. Q.Did you place emphasis on the wheel of fortune or religious beliefs in the play? If not, why?

  2. R.We placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of believing in gods and their opposite position taken by nature. We tried to set up the idea that the characters, especially the older characters, believe in these things in the most serious way. You have to present this idea otherwise the moments at which they call upon them has none of the power that they need to have. The best example of this is the moments when Lear puts curses on people. It is very difficult to present this idea to a modern audience, but in the time in which the play was written, this idea of putting a curse on someone as Lear does to Goneril would be very serious indeed. As a director you have to consider the reactions of the other characters within the scene in order to make this a very ‘real’ thing for them.

The other area that religion became important was in representation of Glouster's character.  We presented the idea that Glouster truly believes in what he sees in the stars and in the omen that he describes in his speech in act one. We also presented the generational shift in thinking of the times through Edmond and even Edgar, in their laughing at what their farther believes in and also seeing it as superstitious. Religion pops up time and again and it was very important for us to show how the characters relate to the idea of religion because it is something that really defines the world they inhabit. 2. Were the actors doubled to particular characters for any reason? In particular Cordelia and the Fool?Most of the doubling was done for practical reasons but I also wanted the actors to be able to play ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. For example Kent doubled with Edmond or Cornwall doubled with Edgar. As far as the fool is concerned the double of Cordelia and the Fool is believed to be the double that was originally used when the play was first performed. It makes sense because there are so many moments within the play that both the Fool and Cordelia have the same purpose in relation to bringing out Lear's humanity.

Q. Does your reading cater for contemporary society? If so, how?

If you are a theatre director working today your production has to cater to contemporary society. The world of the play, the hierarchy, the laws and customs of the time in which the play was written are very different to our own society. A large part of our job was to place these elements within a context where they could be understood by a modern audience. This is the reason behind choosing the Samurai and other Asian elements of performance to bring a focus to our production. These are societies that have the same rigidity the same respect for lords and fathers that were present when the play was first written. By presenting these ideas you make a contemporary society aware of why the characters do the things they do and you allow people to be able to see ideas and points of view that are relevant to their own society. I still think even though this is an old play, there are still ideas in it that are very relevant to today. For example in our production, the three people that are left standing towards the end of the play Edgar, Kent and Albany are all people that have lived by a certain moral code. They have based their life on this code and as a result they are the people who have been able to persevere on a path of devoting themselves to others. I think that this is an idea that we still need to think about in modern society.

Q.What particular production techniques did you use to convey this society?

I am not sure what you are asking here? But here goes. As I have mentioned above the Asian elements within the production were a big way for us to create a world where the hierarchy of the play could be understood by a modern audience. The movements in the beginning of the play were the main way of showing this world to the audience. The rigid, repetitive movements were there to show a society that had strict rules. The interesting thing about the play is that this first scene is the only scene where we see the kingdom how it is when Lear has all the power. Then it is also during this first scene that the kingdom is thrown into disarray.  For the rest of the play all the characters operate in a world that is unstable and chaotic. We wanted to show this through movement and in terms of my job in the overall pace of the play. Once Cordelia is banished the play begins its movement to the inevitable end finding the right pace of how this movement occurs is an important way of presenting the world of the play.

Q.Your appropriation was very traditional. Was this done in an attempt to portray a certain aspect of the play more powerfully?

I would not say our play was traditional at all. It was a very minimalist interpretation of the play in order that you focus on the actors as storytellers.  I would be very interested to hear why you thought it was traditional. The approach we took was to get to the essence of what the story is about from our point of view.

Q. What was the importance of dramatic features such as the replay in the beginning, the doubling of roles and the off stage dialogue?

Again like I have said many of these things were used as a means of looking for different methods of telling a story. As a director I think that it is important to keep the audience unaware of what you are going to do next, so that they are constantly surprised when something happens that they were not expecting. All these elements within the production were ways of doing this. It is interesting but the use of seven actors meant that, often, we had to show the audience what we were doing at all times. When you do this, you bring the audience into a world where they quickly accept that these are the rules that you are using in the production.  They will then believe in what you are doing. Then these other elements that you add on top of the rules you have established, the replays and the voiceovers change the rules and give the play another element.

Q. There are several absurdist elements throughout the performance especially concerning movement, what is the relevance of this?

The moment work we did in the play was not so much absurdist as stylized and there were many different reasons for this. It is my personal belief that we place to much emphasis on the spoken word within the theatre. The body is just as much of a communicative tool as the voice and particularly the spoken word. What I wanted to look at was the possibility of bringing some of the images within the text to the surface by providing visual images that help paint a mental picture for the audience member. It is interesting but I have found that most of what happens at a theatrical performance actually happens in the audiences mind. You watch a play and your mind allows you to enter the world of the play at a number of different levels.  I find the more stimulation you give to the mind form different sources for example music, movement, theatrical images, textual images and lights, that your mind will trick itself into believing what you are seeing is real when it does this you actually enter the story. 

Q. Was a conscious choice made to avoid overplaying the rivalry of the classes?

I am not really sure what you mean by this question. I never saw the play as specifically being about class rivalry. It touches on many ideas to do with the disparity between rich and poor and we looked at these ideas carefully. I think much of Lear’s personal discovery is about the discovery of how he has treated people; that all the adornments and trappings of a king hide what is really going on in the world. But this is only one element of his self discovery.

Q. A theatre review stated that your production was "more faithful to the texts vast spirit" Do you think this is true?

I would like to think that this was true. The review was comparing the play to another production that I did not see so I cannot say whether or not it is true. I would like to think that we captured an essence of what the play was about.  I think we were able to find humor in the play that I had not seen before and this helped bring out the tragic elements in the play all the more. I think I was really lucky to have a great cast of actors that were able to bring an emotional truth to each of the characters that they played and this meant that each character was really well rounded and well performed. Above all the play is so theatrical. We often forget that in Shakespeare’s times they would not have acted this play as what we would now call a realistic piece of theatre.  The whole idea of realism had not been explored within the theatre. If a modern audience were to view a group of Elizabethan actors performing the play we would have thought that it was very stylized indeed. I guess this was also something that we were exploring within our production the overt theatrically that Shakespeare presents. I was trying to find a good balance between this theatricality and the emotional truth of the characters and this is where they play become faithful to the texts spirit.

Q. In your production the last words of the play were spoken by Albany. In others they are spoken by Edgar. Was there any reason for this change?

I think this was taken from the Folio of the text where Albany says the last lines of the play we mixed that version with the quarto where Edgar says the last lines and used both. It was because I wanted to show another stage in the handover of power between the two men left at the end. It was also because by using seven actors, we had no other people on stage at the end that were left alive. I thought that it might be interesting if this last speech was a dialogue between the two men.

Director’s Notes - King Lear (2005)

This production of King Lear began with the choice to use only seven actors to play upward of twenty characters within the play. Our work in rehearsal has been an experiment in storytelling, a constant search for the best way of telling such an expansive story with so few. The choice has forced us to look for a number of different ways of portraying the characters and exploring the themes and images that are within the text. In doing so the restrictions that we placed upon ourselves have had the most positive of effects, they have forced everyone involved to be inventive and imaginative in their work. As a result we have been able to distill the essence of the play into what I see as a series of essential moments that are at the heart of King Lear.

The choice to use seven actors has also meant that every element that we have added to the production from the set design to the lighting has become an integral part of this storytelling. In particular Jim's music and Katja's costumes have had a huge impact on the shape of the final performance. Both their work allowed us to see new ways to progress in directions that we would not have seen otherwise. I have been blessed with a cast and crew that wanted to take on the challenge that this production presented and have found everyone involved in the production inspiring to work with. I would particularly like to thank Alex Harrison for her work in helping us find a physical language for the play and for her constant support.

Michael Piggot