Guildernstern isn’t dead

Adam Foster

York St John graduate Adam Foster, who played Guildenstern in the recent Sheffield Crucible production of Hamlet, directed by Paul Miller, returned to his old university (where I teach) to speak to our Study of Shakespeare students on 28th October 2010.

And what a delightful young man he is, and how unexpectedly excited he was to be taken for lunch in our canteen!  ‘One of my best friends lived in that room just there,’ he said, pointing out the window at the halls of residence opposite.

Because the Sheffield Crucible production had sold out early on (over 30,000 people had seen it in 5 weeks), many of us had not been able to get tickets.  However, Adam Foster talked about the process of preparing for his part in a way that engaged all of his audience.  His confession that he had been ‘phobic of Shakespeare’ before he started acting immediately put everyone at ease. 

‘At school the teacher would just have us read the thing and we would tune out… I now approach it as an actor.  We don’t have books like you do, but a script on A4 paper, exactly the same as if we were doing a new play.  In fact, our director encouraged us to treat every classic play as a new play and vice versa.’ 

Part of this process of taking ownership of the work included the pre-rehearsal roundtable readings of the play (which was an amalgamation of the Folio and the Second Quarto).  The cast and production team did two critical things during this initial period.  The first was to discuss which parts were to be cut out, so that although ‘a production is an organic thing, constantly changing’ (Foster 28/10/10), any major changes were agreed from the outset and belonged to a coherent vision. Thus, the line ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’ was taken out. ‘This was the director’s choice: he felt that by the end of the play there were enough dead bodies,’ Foster explained, ‘but because we were included in the decision-making we didn’t feel that we were having our parts reduced.’  This wasn’t quite the case for all the cast.  Apparently, there was a real struggle at times between Miller and Barbara Flynn over whether or not Gertrude would have been present at key scenes, with Miller arguing that as a female consort she would not have been, and Flynn arguing that as Gertrude she would have been.  However, some of the reviewers considered that both Gertrude and Ophelia had been underused, so perhaps Flynn’s position was ultimately justified, especially as the mise-en-scene was non-specific – ‘vaguely Chekhov’ according to my colleague, Gweno Williams.  The second way in which the read-through enabled the actors to engage with the text as ‘living words’  was when, Foster said, ‘we were told to “put what you’re saying into your own words”‘.  This helped them a) to understand what they were actually saying through all that blank verse and b) overcome any lingering Bard-phobias, perhaps.

Talking of the idea that a production is organic, my other colleague, Julie Raby, talked about how the production continued to change throughout the performance (you can read her detailed discussion of this through the blog link below).  She felt that it had engaged with feedback from critics and audience responses and quoted Michael Boyd of the RSC in seeing ‘the production [as] a rehearsal’. 

‘Polonius, played by Hugh Ross, never said the comical-tragical-historical-pastoral bit in the same order two nights running’ said Foster, and Rosencrantz, who sounds a bit more of a method actor than his partner, invented different back-stories for every night of the performance.  ‘I never knew where he was in his head!  One night he told me off-stage that I had just dragged him from an opium den…  He had decided that Rosencrantz was a bit of a party animal, and we joked that he just said that because he was a party animal himself, and he was making excuses for his acting!’  This sense of an canonical text becoming something dynamic, unpredictable, and even a little dangerous in performance was a revelation for some.  

On Guildenstern himself, Foster saw himself and Rosencrantz as a ‘double act’ with Guildenstern the most savvy of the two.  ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fun parts, quite iconic; we don’t have much to do but we’re a great plot device, outsiders coming in, bringing new energy.  We didn’t play it as tragedy – we didn’t know we were going to die’. They were literally thrown onto stage in the Crucible production, originally in their own clothes, but soon changing into ‘court clothes’ , ill-fitting suits.  Foster felt that Guildenstern had an agenda, that he ‘could get something out of the court, advancement or position’ unlike Rosencrantz, who was often ‘lost’, doubtless due to all that imaginary opium.  ‘I played Guildenstern with ambition.  I arrived in court, was offered a king’s reward, and thought, hey, it would be a good thing to live like this.  As Guildenstern I made a decision to side with the king very early on, much earlier on than Rosencrantz, who never really understood why we were going to England.  Miller described us as the friends who stayed behind in a small town, who didn’t go off to university.  We’d been close to him when we were growing up, but we weren’t close now.  This added an edge. And the trust was broken on both sides.  I think Guildenstern felt that Hamlet had already dumped them when he went off to university in Wittenburg.’

This discussion reminded me of two very important points: that performance runs are not static, unchangeable, single entities, and that it is all the bit parts around Hamlet that add depth and texture to the play.

Julie Raby’s Review from Between the Acts: [accessed 09/11/2010]

The Independent Review: [accessed 30/10/2020]

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