In the first performance of a nine day run of The Factory’s Hamlet, actors hang from the gods, four people play one character at the same time and it doesn’t finish until 3.30am. In the penultimate performance a week later, scenes are performed in the order they come out of a hat. During the intervening week they play at a private party, in a warehouse and in the middle of Regent Street. Quite simply: anything can happen.
The Factory is an unusual theatre company and its Hamlet is not your usual Hamlet. No show is the same and even the actors aren’t let in on the secret. Through props brought by the audience and obstructions from the director both the actors and the audience are forced to examine the text in completely new ways. After my inaugural Factory experience at Shakespeare’s Globe, producer Liam Evans Ford challenges me to a second round, promising it will be completely different.
When I ask Evans Ford: “Why Hamlet?” he responds: “It’s just such a well formed play. It’s such a wonderful piece of writing”. At the Globe performance, at midnight, fifteen or so grinning actors come out to a roaring crowd the Rolling Stones would have been proud of. A rotating squad of 29 actors volunteer to be part of the Factory for free. They propagate a sense of equality: the squad list is in alphabetical order and parts are decided on the night. All of the actors know a variety of characters and don’t know what they might play until it is announced in front of the audience. The cast members pull up audience members from the crowd for rounds of rock, paper scissors.
The obstructions in Factory’s Hamlet are the brainchild of Tim Carroll, a Royal Shakespeare Company director, and grew from a similar project in Budapest. The company doesn’t bring costumes or props to the performance, everything is provided by the audience. Whether that’s a stuffed (fake) deer brought by stage hands, or a tin of beans grabbed by an audience member as he left the house, each prop must be used naturally. Food is eaten and clothes and wigs are worn. Some props are more successful than others and a father expressing pain by bursting a bag of flour can annoy as well as charm.
The actors take props from the audience at random or use what is thrown onto the stage. Generally, at both performances, they are able to weave them into the story. The leaves of a pineapple become a token from father to son and the boxing gloves become part of Hamlet’s tortured monologue. At the Globe badminton rackets and fruit are used to depict the fight in the final scene. At Hampstead the characters compete to finish eating sticks of celery first; Hamlet bites Laertes’ celery to depict killing him with his own sword.
The props are not the only distractions. As the project evolved, Carroll and the other directors began to impose obstructions on the cast. They test the actors’ professionalism and knowledge of the script and the concentration of the audience. The obstructions change each performance. In the last act at Shakespeare’s Globe a fiddler directs the performance by playing and stopping his instrument: the actors can only move when he plays and only speak when he falls silent. Surrendering the pace to a musician without the actors’ knowledge of the play looses some of the intensity and a small proportion of the crowd.
In Hampstead, picking the scenes at random worked well. During the interval at Hampstead the actors come out into the lobby, running around the bar while the audience stock up on drinks. As they talk they stand perilously close to balcony edges putting their bodies on the line. “To be or not to be” is spoken across the crowded bar. At the end of the scene Carroll directs the actors to swap parts: artistic director of the Factory Alex Hassell becomes Ophelia and Sarah Bedi the mad Dane. Later I learn Bedi learned Hamlet for the previous night’s show as surprise to the rest of the cast and Hassell didn’t know he knew Ophelia’s lines until he was tested.
The collective’s manifesto is displayed on posters for sale in the lobby of both theatres. Its statements they say they don’t believe in star casting but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any stars. At Shakespeare’s Globe Josh Harnett, in rehearsal for Rain Man, appears as captain. The Hampstead audience is treated to Nonso Anozie, noted for performances as King Lear and Othello, as the captain and James McAvoy as Fortinbras. In addition, many of the cast are accomplished actors – just don’t expect them to tell you that on the poster.
The Factory’s Hamlet is a brilliant expansion of the play. This run marks a close in a chapter of The Factory’s history. They will no longer be performing it every week. But that might just mean they have time to develop something even more exciting.
Go to www.seehamlet.co.uk for more details.