Jeremy Stanford’s 2006 begins when he’s invited to work with Simon Phillips (then Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theater Company) and others on workshop Priscilla: Queen of the Desert into a stage musical, playing Tick (the part made famous by Hugo Weaving).
What follows is a year in a life of both an actor and a play, from workshop to full-blown Aussie musical, as Stanford juggles the commitments of family and career, auditions and rehearsals, returning to singing after an 8-year gap, creative inspirations and clashes, and all the emotional and professional dramas inherent in the acting life. Along the way, Stanford learns to embrace his inner drag queen and uses parts of his life as touchstones for bringing out Tick’s story.
Theatre life is full of strange pressures and the balancing acts of ego and collaboration to make a story work on stage. So often the whole enterprise seems on the precipice, but hard work, dedication and often sheer bloody-mindedness somehow forge hugely successful musical out of the furnace.
Seeing the theatrical world through Stanford’s eyes reveals layers of how such a world works. It’s lovingly told, but Stanford doesn’t hold back on revealing the days when tempers are frayed, emotional wellbeing is disintegrating and Jeremy himself is at a low, low ebb.
It’s a little gossipy, a little self-deprecating, and it’s more than a little stressful as the rehearsals go badly awry – but Stanford’s easygoing writing style and personable, honest approach keeps everything moving quickly towards the finale, where success will have to be wrought from a complex show and a pretend bus that keeps breaking down.
If you love Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, musical theatre, actorly memoirs or some combination of the three, Year of the Queen is the book for you!
My relationship with Richard III is a bit rambling and has a few strange turns.
Like most people, what I knew of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, boiled down to one simple story: he was a wicked, hunchbacked man who stole the throne and murdered his innocent nephews, before being cut down in battle while calling out for a horse.
Shakespeare’s play – a fiction written for a Tudor audience and heavily influenced by histories written by Tudor accounts – obviously in turn influenced centuries of popular opinion on this game loser of the Wars of the Roses.
These days, I’m a much keener advocate of King Richard III as a misunderstood monarch. Books like The Maligned Kinghave sown enough doubt about his complicity in the boys’ disappearance and made me a Ricardian!
Hot on the heels of my second viewing of theTrafalgar Theatre production, my friend, fellow writer and co-conspirator, Wendy Fries, dared me to write a Richard III/Star Trek’s Khan fanfiction. After 30 seconds of denying such a thing was possible, I wrote the first of what turned out to be 14 stories of time travel, reincarnation, epic love and redemption.
I turned Shakespeare’s (and Freeman’s) mad, bad Richard into a whole new character – and my curiosity about the real Richard was revived. Not long after I’d written the stories, Richard’s recently rediscovered bones were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral. The pathos of the moment, combined my unexpected emotional investment in both the fictional and the real King, spurred me onto further reading. I read Jospehine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and then, hungry for facts, Annette Carson’s The Maligned King.
All of which brings me to Leicester, and on the trail of the history of King Richard III, who was surely no saint, but who wasn’t a black-hearted villain either.
The Bosworth Battlefield
My first day in Leicester took us to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. Between intermittent bursts of rain and sunshine, we were guided through the exhibition in the old farmhouse by the centre’s curator, Richard Knox.
The actual location of the battlefield wasn’t certain until relatively recently, when investigation located both the marsh in which Richard III’s horse got bogged and a wealth of medieval cannon balls. The Centre is located on what was the King’s encampment. From the nearby hill, a frame surmounted by Richard’s and Henry Tudor’s standards looks down on the valley where Richard met his end.
There’s a trick of imagination I indulge when visiting historical sites. I close my eyes and try to place myself across time, in the shoes of whoever once stood here. I have rested on the stones at the base of the Egyptian pyramids where workers once rested. I have placed my hands on Roman walls that were built by hands long gone to dust.
This day I stood on the earth that those long-gone medieval once stood on; suffered on; died on.
Here a man with a twisted spine – recently bereaved of both son and wife, an administrator with a concern for justice who was overhung with an appalling mistrust over the fate of his disinherited and vanished nephews – decided to live or die as a king of England.
Had he killed Henry instead of Henry’s standard bearer, the fate of English history may have been different.
The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre takes no sides in the debate about Richard’s character. As Knox says during our tour, the job of the centre is to present the facts of the battle as far as they can be known. This includes presentations of the events leading to the battle, the kinds of weapons and armour used, the key events during the battle as understood from contemporaenous reports, and the aftermath.
The centre also presents material from the various archaelogical researches that went into locating the actual battlefield. Among the items on display is a boar pin, which would have been worn by one of Richard’s household, who rallied to him in the fatal final moments of the battle. Where it was found, the historians surmise, is where he fell, fighting
These final hours of Richard’s short life and two-year reign are covered at the centre with objective thoroughness. If you’re interested in medieval history, whether or not you’re a Ricardian, it’s worth the considerabal trek out to see this thoughtful and intelligently presented battlefield site.
Next I’ll be writing about the discovery of Richard’s body under a Leicester car park and his reinterment at the cathedral.
I have this neat little writing room in the Nicholas Building in Melbourne, which I share with a few other writers. The room right next door to ours is home to Verve Studios, an acting school. Every now and then my writing time and their rehearsal time coincides, which isn’t necessarily the right atmosphere for getting much writing done, but when you’re as endlessly nosy curious as me, it’s just another insight into my fellow human beings.
When I learned that Verve’s graduating actors were appearing in a La Mama co-production out in Kensington, naturally I wanted to see it. The play, Falling Apples, by Norwegian playright Lene Therese Teigen, talks about “how we see our personal futures and how we so easily relinquish self-determination and sew our destiny into the lives of others”.
This link between Verve and me is an intriguing parallel with the themes of Falling Apples, in which a cast of thirteen fill up a long stage facing the single line of chairs for the audience. The characters wander to and fro – sometimes running, sometimes performing subtle pantomimes that reflect scenes to come – and in groups of two or three, they coalesce into a short exchange of dialogue, before the characters spin back out to bounce through the vast stage.
Slowly a story emerges – a husband and wife in a terrible car accident and falling into persistent unconscious states. This affects their adult children; the people that these adult children know – a neighbour, a lover, an employee, his brother and his girlfriend, the employee’s ex-girlfriend, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, the driver of the other car, and a woman from Russia seeking more than just a job. The links get more and more tenuous, yet the filament of connection remains.
Most intriguing of all is the thirteenth character – a young woman who has been a painting for 500 years. Her ambitions to become an artist herself were frozen by her father, but she steps out of the prison of this painting where she’s been an observed object and now observes, and tries to help, all the others.
A strong sense of both attraction and repulsion exists in the way characters are drawn together and fly apart. Almost like a tray of balls sliding about, these people meet, collide, spin off, until there’s a sudden moment of coalescence. Dressed in black for a funeral, these thirteen characters all pull together in the gravity of the situation. Seated directly opposite audience members, stories are finally revealed, connections made clearer, disconnections resolved…
Until, in the final moments, a storm seems to break out and refracture the group once more.
The aforementioned gravity seems to be part of a scientific undercurrent to the story of how this group interacts. Even the title is a reference to Newtonian physics. There’s a sense of watching bodies in orbit, of falling and flying, of entropy and creation. Their fates and how they intertwine seem to be subject to even bigger forces than their own desire to find somewhere solid to stand.
The acoustics of the Kensington Town Hall can be a bit challenging, but the cast do a fine job of delineating their characters and using the vast space in a complicated but engaging way. It takes a little while to get into the rhythm of this unusual production, but it’s fascinating and unusual and worth seeing.
Falling Apples, directed by Peta Hanrahan for Verve Studios in conjunction with La Mama Theatre, is on at:
Kensington Town Hall, 40 Bellair Street, Kensington
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those plays so dense with ideas that you can easily see a dozen of them and get a different experience each time. Should Hamlet be young? He’s still at university, after all. Ah, but the gravedigger says of Yorick, “this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years”, and Hamlet remembers the jester from when he was a boy – so he must be almost thirty, at least?
That’s a prosaic question among many. Is Hamlet mad, feigning madness or something in between? Did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever understand their role or deserve their fate? Was Claudius merely a greedy, self-indulgent opportunist or a cold-hearted, manipulative bastard who was out to rob Hamlets Senior and Junior of the kingship from the start? How implicated is Gertrude and does Ophelia have any agency at all, when her death is reduced to her brother and her boyfriend having a graveyard pissing contest over who loved her more, when nobody loved her enough to care about her opinions or fate when she was alive?
I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets, on stage and screen, adapted and in Shakespeare’s original texts (and there are a couple of different versions of those). I’ve seen them edited down, done with the whole shebang, performed in modern dress, in period dress, in mixed costuming, though not yet nude. (Give it time, though, give it time.)
All is by way of saying that I have a lot of Hamlets under my belt, and this production at the Barbican, directed with confidence and a grand vision by Lyndsey Turner, was one of the very best I’ve ever seen.
The production itself closed on 31 October and will in a week or two come to cinema screens as part of the National Theatre Live program. If you don’t want spoilers about the production or my musings on the text (which may still be spoilerific for some – after all, everyone sees it for the first time some time) you might want to bookmark this for later.
First up is the astonishing set, which reveals itself in stages and then becomes a canvas for the set and lighting design to splash the fate of Denmark upon it. The first thing we see, actually, is Hamlet sitting on the floor in front of a dropped flat. He’s listening to Nature Boy on a record player, going through possessions in old tea chests and experience a small, private moment of loss. In that small moment we meet a grieving son. Soon after, that curtain rises and we are greeted with the vast hall of a royal mansion: two storeys high with a massive staircase, ballustrades, great doors and almost cavernous. You wonder how on earth that space can be filled.
It’s a sudden shift from the individual to the wider world, and of course the royal hall is more than just the palace of Elsinore – that space is Denmark, bounded in a nutshell and the director and her cast have no trouble filling it at all. In face, after the banquet scene, the back of it opens up so that it become still larger yet! And never once is there a sense that the actors are swimming in emptiness (unless, of course, that is the point of the scene). Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet makes particularly good use of this ‘little Denmark’ – his energy in racing from point to point is beautifully contrasted each time he stops and becomes a still centre for thought and introspection.
At key points, the lighting paints decay on the walls – the something rotten in the state of Denmark clearly something emanating from the palace.
And that something, it is eventually proven, is Claudius himself. I’ve enjoyed Ciaran Hinds’ work immensely in the past – he combines fantastic gravitas (he was Julius Caesar in the Rome series) with very human flaws. I’ve seen so many versions of Claudius where he is a bit on the soft side, an apparently affable man who let ambition overtake his duty and now he can’t believe his luck that he got a kingdom and a deliciously saucy wife to boot. When the truth is uncovered at last, this kind of Claudius makes desperate plans to protect himself.
Hinds’ Claudius is a planmaker, all right, but he’s no weaker younger brother who took an oppportunity and ran with it. This Claudius’s true colours are pretty much black to the bone – genuinely dangerous, genuinely threatening and, as a result, a brilliantly dark and, for me, refreshing take on a character I thought was familiar. At the end of the first half of the play, the palace explodes with black confetti, as though Claudius’s determination to ensure Hamlet is killed is the bursting of a particularly nasty foulness – and it infects the whole set. The second half is a scorched Elsinore, a blackened battlefield of a Denmark, ruined long before Fortinbras arrives. This is a Denmark deeply infected by corruption from the top, and when Hamlet returns, apparently relieved of his almost feverish madness, it’s only to find everyone else fretful with rage and their own kind of fevered wildness.
Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is also a treat. The character never has much agency and is pushed around or ignored by pretty much everyone, even after she dies. This Ophelia is nervy, sweet but socially awkward, looking at the world through the filter of her camera. Strangely, although she seems to keep an arm’s length away from people with that intervening camera, it also means that she sees more than others do, too. Her mad scene is played to convey that extremely well, and it is only then that Claudius really pays attention to her – when she says something that indicates she knows what he’s done. Soon after this, when Gertrude realises what Ophelia has buried in her delirium-fed funeral for her murdered father, Ophelia’s distress and her imminent fate hit chillingly hard.
Then, of course, there’s Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Given the hype surrounding his casting and the speed with which tickets sold out for the run, a year in advance, it was always going to be a challenge for him to live up to the expectations.
Fortunately, he not only lived up to them, but exceeded them. His Hamlet is complex and moving, from that first moment we see him as a grieving son to his last breath of a man finally embracing the ‘felicity’ of escaping what is to him an malevolent world. In between, he is melancholy, funny, sly, furious, bemused, child-like, unreasonable, wounded, heartbroken and enraged. He uses every inch of the stage when it’s right to use it, and commands stillness when stillness best tells Hamlet’s tale. He has an incredible physicality and grace – whether clambering all over the banquet table for a soliloquy or waltzing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he accuses them of playing him like a pipe. With Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Cumberbatch wrings every conflict and every contradiction out of the role, and delivers a superbly textured, engaging, comedic and deeply tragic prince.
For all I sing his praises, the fact is he is supported by a truly excellent cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) who really do feel like they’ve known him from childhood; Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who personifies being the opposite in every way of Hamlet as a son; and a Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) who seems happy to turn a blind eye as long as she still has a nice frock. Karl Johnson even does a marvellous job at being an opposite of himself as both the Ghost and the Gravedigger – as grim and disturbing in the former as he is wickedly funny in the latter.
I am so familiar with this play, but so much of this production felt fresh, its approach highlighting aspects of character and text in new ways.Benedict Cumberbatch is part of an ensemble of excellence, from the whole cast and the director to every backdrop, every soundscape, every costume and every line. Lyndsey Turner and her team should be rightly proud of themselves for bringing their grand vision to life in ways still so emotionally direct and personal.
This may not be the definitive Hamlet – with a play this layered, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing – but it is a consummate Hamlet and well worth the seeing. Which I’m going to do again, in the National Theatre Live screening next week.