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How do you adapt the world’s most famous play?

ByTasha Kleeman

Aug 11, 2014

Edinburgh’s newest theatre company discuss their fresh approach to Shakespeare

The plays of William Shakespeare have been adapted, interpreted and reproduced more than the work of any other playwright.

Despite belonging to the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s voice reverberates throughout time, continually provoking new interpretations, criticism and thought. There is no play so frequently retold as the Bard’s infamous Hamlet.

From Tom Stoppard’s 15-minute stripped-down script, to the Young Vic’s 2011 production set in a psychiatric hospital, to a recently announced all-pug version of Hamlet (let’s hope that one’s a joke), writers and directors are constantly creating new ways to retell the work.

The latest to tackle the play are a group of students fresh from Edinburgh University. Gin & Tonic Productions Limited (G&T) is a new touring theatre company set up by Henry Conklin, Christopher Sladdin and Elske Waite.  The company aims to allow students to transcend the boundaries of student societies, claiming to produce theatre that is “intense, raw and electric”. After a promising debut at the Brighton Fringe festival, their one-hour production of

Hamlet is set to be an Edinburgh Fringe success, having already received rave reviews.

But how does one go about adapting such a famous and frequently retold play? G&T’s founders shed some light on the decision process behind their adaptation, which focuses on the deterioration of Hamlet’s mental state, and his heightening sense of claustrophobia.

“We’ve cut every political back-story so that our adaptation focuses solely on him and his psychological journey”, the artistic directors explain. “It is essentially set in his mind where everything is subjective. We’re playing with the idea that everything is visibly unreliable and that we can’t quite trust the people around him.” The directors have also doubled up all parts excluding Hamlet, pairing characters Hamlet trusts with those he does not. “As the play continues and the actors play more roles, it mirrors Hamlet’s descent into madness and complete mistrust of everyone around him.”

The narrow focus of the adaptation has resulted in a hugely abridged script, two hours shorter than the original text. They suggest that “by cutting anything related to the wider context of the setting, the play is much more insular”, thus enhancing the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia they intend to create. Whilst such a drastic cut is inevitably a dangerous game, particularly in a complex Shakespearean text in which every line holds immense significance, in this case it caters to one of the company’s key ambitions: accessibility.

Artistic Director Elske Waite found the cutting of the script to be the most challenging aspect of adaptation, since everyone has their favourite line. “You’d be in conversation with someone and they’d say, “Oh, Hamlet, what a great play” and begin quoting a line that you’d cut the day before”, she explains.

Waite also stresses the importance of bringing something new to the work when adapting Shakespeare, since copying someone else’s production is “just boring”.

“When you do any production, you should be thinking of it in a fresh way. This is most difficult with Shakespeare because it’s been done so many times and is so highly revered that it’s difficult to separate the story of Hamlet from the prestige of its author”, she adds.

In their adaptation, the directors have kept the original Shakespearean language, but attempted to refresh the text with a modern perspective, “ensuring that every line is delivered in a way that the audience will understand.”

Adapting famous works is a risky business, but essential to the preservation of a work itself, whose survival depends on its significance to future generations. G&T aren’t the only ones picking up the baton; open a Fringe programme and several different versions of Hamlet unveil themselves, all with their own claims to originality.

G&T’s particular aim of preserving the original text whilst making it accessible to a modern audience is a tall order, but one that they appear to be facing head on.

By Tasha Kleeman

Tasha Kleeman is a second-year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh. She is co-Features Editor for The Student, and blogs for The Huffington Post.

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