Trevar Alan Chilver had a front row seat for the development of the latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but now finds himself on stage, rehearsing for the role of Horatio. Here he takes an insider’s look at the development and premiere production of Gertrude’s Hamlet.

On Being HoratioAlthough I grew up in that period when Shakespeare was well and truly out of favour in New South Welsh schools, I have loved his work ever since I first gave Hamlet the time of day at the age of 21. This was the year when Kenneth Branagh put the whole damn thing on screen, and even that self-indulgent marathon wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm. Shakespeare’s plays, layered as they are with so many diverse readings, are always ready to yield another insight or provoke another idea. Among my favourite of Shakespeare’s provocations is Tom Stoppard’s magnificent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. This play, derived from Hamlet, features I think the best description of theatre ever devised. Offering a performance to a pair of potential customers, the leader of a performance troupe explains their creative oeuvre:

“We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory.”

The importance of blood, or more precisely, violence, can’t be underestimated in Shakespeare’s work; indeed, his complete works reflect the same range of offerings as the performance troupe Stoppard depicts. And the play that Stoppard took his inspiration from is perhaps the ultimate in Shakespeare’s concurrent blood, love and rhetoric series.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare sets justice at loggerheads with national security, personal ambition and even mental health, with bloody results. And yet with the perfunctory and deliciously inviting line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”, he leaves the window wide open for Stoppard to come in and write an entirely new play about two of the most forgettable characters in the canon of Western literature. The story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern focuses on their powerlessness, and cuts across the story of Hamlet and his epic struggle with his grief, his love, his duty and his mother. The ingenious irony is that the Royal family of Denmark is shown to be as ineffectual as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This concept of cutting across one story to find another is fascinating, and could be replicated across a myriad of Shakespeare’s creations. I have been lucky enough to be part of one that will be taking to the stage in Canberra’s south soon. Following Gertrude through Hamlet’s story, and exploring the complexities of Gertrude’s role in the story, Gertrude’s Hamlet splits its protagonist into three personae; the queen, the woman and the mother, in an attempt to make sense of her often contradictory responses to her circumstances.

Playwright Kerrie Roberts describes the joy of getting hold of a collection of the earlier stories that Shakespeare based his play on. Turning pages with white-gloved hands in the National Library, she was intrigued by an exchange between Gertrude and Hamlet where he asks her if she married Claudius out of lust, and she tells him he couldn’t comprehend the pressure she was under. This kind of insight into characters that have been a part of the folklore of Western culture for a thousand years is golden to a playwright.

Roberts first told me about her plans to take Gertrude’s story from Hamlet and make it the focus of a new piece while I was finishing off a year’s work on a less rounded and more fraught ending for Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, I had no qualms about profaning a sacred cow by hacking away at Shakespeare’s verbiage, and as a result Roberts probably thought my head was a safe repository for her sordid plans for Shakespeare’s greatest work. She was wrong.

As luck would have it, within weeks I heard of an opening in a program run by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, who had been successful in landing a grant for developing women’s theatre. Surreptitiously mentioning a few details to the Artistic Director, Dominic Mico, I was able to invite Roberts to pitch her concept. Again, as luck would have it, my email to her landed in her spam folder, and it was a happy coincidence that she found it, and followed it up. Within weeks a deadline had been set for a first draft, and the next thing I heard was that they needed actors for a public reading.

So lands in my inbox a first draft of Gertrude’s Hamlet. And to be honest, I was somewhat surprised with the direction it had taken. Three Gertrudes was two more than I had expected, and the queen’s play was barely a third the length of her son’s. These three Gertrudes, though – the queen, the woman and the mother – introduced the audience to a whole world of human experience that even Shakespeare, despite his verbosity, had managed to circumvent. And the division of her character into a more elemental form fleshed out the impotent queen of Shakespeare’s play in a way that I felt was entirely modern, and did far more justice to the character than even the most sensitive portrayal of Shakespeare’s Gertrude.

Roberts’ play definitely seemed to me to remain in the concurrent blood, love and rhetoric school that Shakespeare so admired. Her triune Gertrude, the heir to the throne whose sex disbars her from ruling, attempts everything she can think of to juggle the contending forces both within her kingdom and without. Her attempts to stabilise her kingdom, though, don’t fail so much on her misjudgement of political forces, but on personal ones. Her failure, then, is not a simplistic injustice of gender politics, which would make her a trite martyr to the feminist cause, but it is rather a more complex impotence borne out of a potent combination of injustices, selfish ambitions, love and grief.

Six months after the reading, when Roberts asked me whether I would audition for the role of Hamlet, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t just that I liked the play: an actor in his mid thirties is always conscious that Hamlet is the next great role that will slide out of his reach, and the spectre of only being left with Lear is looming eerily on the horizon. And with that dreadful thought in the back of my head, I took myself off to meet the Gertrudes, who had already been cast. I read for them in a bustling café in Canberra’s bohemian heart, but alas, my more fearsome expressions were not fearsome enough, and I found myself – like the middle-aged spinster facing a string of weddings as a bridesmaid – playing Horatio.

To be honest, I had no objections to playing Horatio. I had found him to be a very interesting character in quite a number of productions, and was actually just pleased to be involved with another revisionist exploration of Shakespeare’s work. And I have found over the course of rehearsals that Horatio, in the context of Roberts’ play, gives me plenty to sink my teeth into. In a scene in which Horatio accompanies Hamlet back to Denmark following his father’s death, I felt instinctively that Horatio would not just smile at Hamlet’s mother, but give her a peck on the cheek and seek to convey his condolences. He’s often portrayed as little more than Hamlet’s companion, but he’s actually quite intricately woven into the fabric of the royal court. As he is tested by the royal family’s various responses to their circumstances, Horatio remains loyal without quite becoming acquiescent. It’s quite a balancing act.

And Hamlet is also a carefully-balanced character. In a recent rehearsal, one of my colleagues commented on his surprise realisation that Hamlet is not the lead role in this play. This, to me, is part of the central interest in reimagining Shakespeare’s work; our assumptions about the stories we’ve heard for years have to be challenged, and in this process, when the story is changed and is no longer Shakespeare’s, even Shakespeare’s characters become clearer and better defined. In the context of Gertrude’s Hamlet, Hamlet must be very carefully balanced, because he is as much a part of his mother’s story as she is a part of his, but he’s the better-known character.

On Being HoratioIt’s been almost gut-wrenching at times to see some of the more enriching elements of Hamlet’s character cut in order to keep Gertrude in focus, and this must be even more true for Adam Salter, who is playing the role. During early rehearsals I sat with Salter and Noni See, who is playing Ophelia, as they went through a number of scenes from Shakespeare’s play; the process has been a critical part of bringing these characters, whole, into Roberts’ play.

Whatever loss might be felt in relation to these roles, the great pleasure of being involved with this play has been to see Gertrude emerge. As with most first productions of a play, there have been changes to the script, and to see, through these changes, Gertrude being drawn, sometimes reluctantly, into the spotlight has been inspiring. Roberts has been heard to complain long and loud about “Shakespeare pulling focus again” as she struggles with very strong and wilful characters that have a little more than just a tendency to overshadow Gertrude. I have come to admire Roberts’ tenacity in sacrificing what are interesting, amusing or otherwise beautiful passages of dialogue for the sake of giving Gertrude her spotlight. And Gertrude thrives in the spotlight.

As I expected, Roberts’ play has given me an entirely new appreciation for Gertrude. Shakespeare allowed his queen to be overshadowed by her husbands and her son, but brought into the spotlight, she is shown to be as conniving as Claudius, as fraught as Hamlet, and as intriguing as any character in the canon.

Perhaps the most interesting insight, though, is just how close this story is to a very present reality. Just four years before I was born, in 1972, the current queen of Denmark took that throne after her father’s death. It was a momentous occasion, because when she was born the Danish constitution precluded a woman from ruling as monarch. The popularity of King Frederik IX and his daughters, though, led to a successful referendum making Queen Margrethe’s ascension both possible and very popular.

The sensational and bloody events of Hamlet, which have been told and retold for over a thousand years, are still too close for comfort. Through this play I’ve come to pity Gertrude as much as I’ve always pitied Hamlet. The tragedy is that blood is compulsory.

Gertrude's Hamlet by Kerrie Roberts plays at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, from Aug 24 – Sept 3, 2011. Further details»

Bottom Right – (l-r) Jenna Arnold, Elaine Noon Adam Salter Cerridwyn Murphy

Most read reviews

Every Brilliant Thing | Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA

Performed in-the-round, by marvellously talented Luke Hewitt, Every Brilliant Thing is a work of life affirming humour.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

This long-awaited show delivers all you can expect and is a veritable feast for the senses! As much fun as a Wonka Fudgie Wudgie (and as whimsical as a Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight).