The church is pitch-black. Nearly 250 years of smells and stone surround the audience. A flashlight punctures the darkness as two guards look over heads and peer into the recesses of the church. Suddenly, the iconic opening line: “Who’s there?” The action unfolds briskly, surprisingly in a chilling version of Hamlet produced by Guildford Shakespeare Company.
Guildford Shakespeare Company began in 2006, when Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran formed a company dedicated to creating theatre that was “accessible, innovative and exciting.” As Pinches related to me in an interview a few days after I saw Hamlet, their first production, Much Ado About Nothing, was played on the grounds of Guildford Castle. It sold out, and the success encouraged another season. And another, and another (and so on) until 2011 when the company became a registered charity and was awarded a grant from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Having tackled many of the major comedies in the summers (including a Love’s Labour’s Lost reviewed by PlayShakespeare) the company staged its first indoor production (Romeo and Juliet--see photo) in the winter of 2010. A year later, in the same space, the Holy Trinity Church is playing host to one of the most famous and profound English-language texts: Hamlet.
In its drive to make theatre accessible and innovative, Guildford Shakespeare Company pursues a commitment to “site-specific theatre.” Pinches explains: “With site-specific [theatre], the audience are immersed in the world of the place...because the world of the play is the venue.” But is the talk about “site-specific theatre” just a bunch of “words, words, words” or does the physical space contribute to—even inform—the appreciation of a play? For Guildford’s Hamlet, the physical space in question is the largest Georgian church in Surrey, built in 1763. It is an imposing structure, refined inside, but still exuding the smell of history. For this production, wooden chairs line either side of the aisle, facing each other—the action not at the altar but rather in the aisle itself. The most striking of Susannah Henry’s design features is the split stage. A raised platform to the right and to the left of the audience creates two playing areas: it’s like watching a Wimbledon match (if every Wimbledon match ended with both players and the officials dead on the court).
Ben Ashton, in his opening soliloquy as Hamlet (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt”) immediately sets to work to find the interplay between place and text. When he says:
O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
he directs the repetition of “God” high into the ceiling, his tone the same as if you were to call out someone’s name when asking “Is anyone home?” While in other productions such a device would be merely clever or cynical, in the context of Holy Trinity Church, it becomes pointed—even rebellious. Playing Hamlet in a church foregrounds so much of the text’s exploration of religion. As Pinches says, “[If you] place those arguments in a church setting where someone is asking about the undiscovered country.... all of a sudden this venue is a huge highlighter going Woah!” Woah, indeed. A massive metal-work cross, part of the church, stands above the rear stage. As Claudius (Noel White) tries to pray (“Bow, stubborn knees, and heart”) the cross—the entire church—dissolve the boundaries between acting and reality. Who are we watching pray?
Not only does playing Shakespeare in non-traditional performance spaces highlight unexpected nuances in the text, it also “opens up those venues, and gets the [audience] interacting with ... their society and community.” Outside the confines of a traditional playhouse, the audience is free to explore the venue and to experience it in perhaps an unusual way. Pinches sees this as a benefit of site-specific productions, allowing audience members to “appreciate more the art and act of going to the theatre” where “theatre” is a re-imagined, more inclusive term. Walking through the church’s graveyard before the show, for instance, I was noticing the headstones and coffin-shaped grave markers. It’s a bit difficult creating that kind of mood for Hamlet if you are, for instance, rocking up five minutes before showtime at the National Theatre on the trendy, brightly-lit Southbank.
Pinches, who plays Laertes, says he is “immensely proud of this production”—as well he should be. The cast is uniformly strong, and director Caroline Devlin’s vision of a “things fall apart” Elsinore works well. At the risk of giving away too much (spoiler alert!): the absence of a ghost displays a trust in both the actors and the site to provide a sense of “fear and wonder.” We see signs of the ghost, but not the ghost itself—a clever move that has the audience shifting in their seats, whirling their heads this way and that, seeing this ghost feelingly.
Guildford Shakespeare Company’s commitment to site-specific theatre, combined with well-executed vision, offers a convincing production. The audience experiences Hamlet in a new, sometimes exciting, sometimes chilling environment. Holy Trinity Church, housing the tombs of Guildford citizens past, confronts Hamlet in a real and profound way—the “undiscovered country” is literally under the audience’s feet, to either side of them. Such a melding of text and space provides, indeed, a “site-specific” interaction with Shakespeare's play.