Tag Archives: hamlet

Happy Birthday Shakespeare, a project by bloggers around the world

Shakespeare is a man for all ages. If you tried Ben Jonson’s rave review on your average school student they probably wouldn’t agree, instead the very name William Shakespeare could be enough to make them look confused, yawn with boredom, or tremble with fear. If you sat them down in front of a play, however, they just might believe it.

In January 2010 I joined the eight to twelve-year-olds of Claremont School, Kingsbury, as the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a seventy-minute version of Hamlet. Black and Asians pupils made up most of the audience, and many were watching Shakespeare (and even theatre) for the first time. Children are the harshest critics, but this group offered their undivided attention and had absolutely nothing negative to say at the end.

I, a Hamlet virgin, joined them. I was reminded of when I’d make my way to the Oxford Playhouse as a young teenager, often surrounded by an older white middle-class crowd.  I felt out of place. But once the action started, and the jester laughed, lovers kissed, siblings reunited, there was nothing differentiating me from everyone else.

So if someone were to ask: what does Shakespeare mean to you? Shakespeare breaks down barriers. Everyone, including the pupils of Claremont School and myself, can be transported into his world.

Years later from being in the Oxford Playhouse, I went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was responsible for attracting new audiences to the theatre, and have continued to seek out weird and wonderful Shakespeare plays, seeing his work danced, rapped, and even tweeted. A man for all ages? Certainly.

Written as a part of Happy Birthday Shakespeare, runs till April 30.


Spotlight: Dharmesh Patel, Actor

Dharmesh is starring in his first Shakespeare role as Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. He originally studied to become a Drama teacher and trained at the Hope Street Physical Theatre School. He has starred in the BBC Asian Network’s Silver Street and theatre including Happily Married, Silent Cry, and Satyagraha.

What performance of Hamlet can you remember having an impact of you?

The truth is I didn’t see a production of Hamlet until last year when I found out I was doing it. The first one I actually saw was with Jude Law. I didn’t enjoy it personally, it did nothing for me, but the rest of the audience loved it. For me he wasn’t dark enough and I really wanted my Hamlet to be dark. I was starting to be more critical of how I would play the character, so there was part of me that didn’t enjoy watching it as I knew that would be me in a couple of months. It made me more nervous because it was my first Shakespeare part and it was a big deal for me. I wish I could watch it again now.

You have been performing Hamlet in schools across London for young children. Are there any specific experiences that stood out?

In Lampton school in Hounslow we had a question and answer session, and one of the questions was: “Who do we think the villains are?” Early on one of the kids in a primary school went: “It’s Hamlet.” He then went onto say that because of him five people died. I remember being blown away and thinking that’s the kind of response I want. During the same session someone said Claudius, because he killed King Hamlet and his action infected the whole of Denmark. We don’t even say something as deep as that in rehearsals. If you think about what he said, he was ten years old, he knows that the death of a good kingdom was destroyed because of Old Hamlet’s death. Sometimes when we’re playing the character you don’t really think beyond the play, I was so in my own world that I never for once even thought about that.

What play have you seen recently that you would recommend?

I think it’s really important to watch bad theatre as well as good theatre. When I was growing up we were ridiculously poor and theatre was for the elite during the Thatcher days. I always feel like I missed out as an actor not being able to watch enough theatre as a kid and it was weird going to the theatre as an adult for the first time. Nowadays you get tickets for five pounds for under twenty-fives, there’s so many venues that do great ticket offers, and schools are doing more trips to the theatre. I would recommend seeing everything to a young person, but personally I like to watch bad theatre.

Are there any different obstacles facing black and ethnic minority actors?

For me the biggest obstacle I have is not being seen as an actor. You don’t want to be seen as a colour. It really pangs and hurts everytime. I want to be the best at what I do, and I’m sure every other person does regardless of what it is that they do. You often feel that what you’re being judged on isn’t your ability as an artist, you’re seen as a tick box, and you don’t know whether you’re good enough because of the colour of your skin or because of your ability. So now I don’t care about it, I’ve kind of given up on the whole colour thing because it sets you back. You want to better yourself whatever colour you are.

You starred in Silver Street on the BBC Asian Network. Do you think that specific Asian programs help or hinder progress?

It depends how it’s done. If it’s a poor job then of course it’s going to hinder it, if it’s a great job then who knows. But then if that’s what we’re showing to the rest of our society, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a real catch-22 situation. I’ve seen some all-Asian casts where I was so disgusted that I walked out, but then you can say the same thing about any other play. It depends on how you do the piece of work, not the colour of your skin. I suppose it’s because I’m getting older and I’m starting to realise what my beliefs are and what’s worth fighting for I feel like that.

Hamlet joins the repertoire in The Courtyard Theatre from 1 May 2010.

Hamlet, at Claremont School

pull my finger...

It’s often forgotten amongst schoolchildren that Shakespeare is supposed to be seen live and not simply read. As a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stand Up For Shakepeare campaign schools across London, including Kingsbury, Southall, Harrow, Wembley, and Hounslow, were treated to a performance of Hamlet and a drama workshop. In Claremont School, Kingsbury, this Hamlet virgin joined students aged eight to twelve years old, who were largely black and Asian, that were also watching Hamlet (or even theatre) for the first time.

The play is edited by Bijan Sheibani and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, winner of the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award. McCraney says: “Shakespeare is for all people. Hamlet is a great play to tour schools as it deals directly with young people and their families.” Here classic drama meets popular culture: Hamlet is cut to seventy minutes, has shortened soliloquies, snippets of Sam Sparro’s Black and Gold, and audience participation. This maybe the PG-rated Hamlet, but it is just as exciting. And Dharmesh Patel, with his boyish good looks and endless energy, creates a multifaceted Hamlet.

The main attraction, however, comes from the audience: the children. They reacted to the play more than the adults and remind us of Shakespeare’s accessibility, be it with their fascination at Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech or fear at the Ghost’s eerie presence. All of them offered their undivided attention and had nothing negative to say about the performance, which in turn challenges the argument that Shakespeare is for the elite or educated. Well now, if only we were all lucky enough to watch the RSC at school.

Joins the repertoire in The Courtyard Theatre from 1 May 2010.

To see or not to see: * * * *

Read a report in the March issue of Asian Woman magazine

Spotlight: Melanie Whitehead, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning Department Manager

Melanie WhiteheadMelanie is the Learning Department Manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In March 2008 Stand up for Shakespeare was launched in schools, it aims to get young people acting Shakespeare, seeing it live, and starting it earlier. 

What is the biggest obstacle in getting young people into Shakespeare?

A lot of the work we do is about raising aspirations. There’s this assumption that Shakespeare is hard, and if you can understand Shakespeare then you’re good. In some ways it works in our favour, as we know we can get young people to enjoy it, celebrate it, and play the characters. Sometimes you just want to forget all the assumptions though, so it’s good to work with younger people as they don’t have that perception and they don’t have the weight of their parent’s perceptions. 

Why do you think Stand up for Shakespeare has been successful in schools? 

With the campaign we heard lots of different views and lots of high profile people have supported it. I think there’s always a debate around whether it’s just celebrating this dead white guy who is speaking this impenetrable language and hasn’t been around for four hundred years, therefore we should get him off of our curriculums and be studying current influences today. Scholars debate this all the time and for me it comes back to the way he presents a human that is cross-cultural. It’s not about “I feel like this because this is my cultural understanding”, it’s about “I feel like this because I’m a human being and in this situation”, and that is understandable from wherever you are. 

In Stand up for Shakespeare you encourage students to see Shakespeare live so they have positive early experiences. What early theatre experience had an impact on you? 

I was quite lucky to be introduced to Shakespeare in a non-threatening way, I had a few inspirational teachers who approached Shakespeare in a stealth way and I was my mum’s theatre partner. I remember the first time I walked into the Swan theatre and it feeling very intimate and sacred, but it also felt casual that you were being embraced into this sanctum space. It wasn’t Shakespeare I saw, it was Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and that was my moment of going “wow, live theatre rocks.” 

How can the Royal Shakespeare Company attract a more young and diverse audience?

We work with schools and within schools we have a complete cross section of society. And part of our work is making sure we engage with culturally diverse schools because it is about those first experiences, if young people can get used to being in the theatre and having a good experience of Shakespeare then that will hopefully last. I think in terms of our statistics it’s increasing, we are doing better than we used to do at attracting new audiences. Part of the Complete Works Festival was about expanding that repertoire, for example, Dash Art’s Indian Dream and South Africa’s The Tempest, those kind of productions were about going, you know what there are people all over the world doing Shakespeare and it isn’t about white middle-class people from Stratford. In fact it was astounding for seeing that diversity of performances and I would never have said an all-white set of Titus Andronicus in Japanese would have been one of my favourite performances from the festival, but it absolutely was because it was beautiful and very well done.

The National Theatre and Royal Opera House have been transmitting live cinema broadcasts of drama, opera, and dance.  Do you think this helps or hinders getting people into theatre? 

It’s a really interesting debate, Michael Boyd was recently misquoted saying something like the National’s production of Phedre is a different medium; it’s a two-dimensional medium as opposed to a three-dimensional world. He was on the phone to Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre] in moments saying he didn’t say that. What we’re used to seeing on our screens are close ups, visually spectacular things, special effects and you don’t get that in the theatre; your eyes do the panning in and out for you. It’s difficult as what works in theatre doesn’t always translate into film, having said that we’re constantly asked to do film versions of our productions and have just done a film version of David Tennant’s Hamlet. I think cinema are losing their audiences and doing as many things they possibly can to get more people in; as we now have giant screens in our homes they now have 3D cinema and all those other gimmicks. Obviously for me there is no better experience than a live experience, however, getting people to understand how theatre works and seeing it will hopefully lead people through the doors.

Spotlight: Madhav Sharma, Actor

Madhav Sharma

Madhav studied acting at RADA, he has starred in productions of Behzti, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet, and films that include East is East and The Blue Tower.

What’s the most exciting piece of theatre you have seen recently?

Although unevenly cast, it was Tim Supple’s multi-cultural production of As You Like It at The Curve, Leicester. The final scene was so moving that it took my breath away.

When playing Hamlet in Joseph O’Conor’s production what was the biggest challenge you faced?

Joseph O’Conor, who had played it in Sir Donald Wolfit’s company and who directed me, warned that the biggest challenge is not to be daunted by the fact that an awful lot of people have their own preconceptions of how he should be played. To thine own self be true.

You starred in the play Behzti, written by Gurpreet Kaur, that caused controversy in 2004 for its rape scene in a Gurudwara. Do you think there should be a line drawn between art and religion?

Behzti, in my opinion, is not a play about religion, it is about human fallibility and hypocrisy. Art, as Picasso reminded us, is a lie that enables one to tell the truth. Faith has nothing to fear from fiction.

Are there different obstacles facing black and ethnic minority actors?

Yes there are, lack of proper career development for one. Prejudice, based on colour of skin is still prevalent, and even those who spout a belief in equality have done nothing to create equality of opportunity, which is what we need.

How do you think theatres can appeal to a more diverse and young audience?

By being more accessible: less mono-cultural, less elitist , less bound by convention masquerading as tradition, and less about abstract theory. Instead more about feeling, more multi-racial, and more welcoming.