"It’s just really endlessly interesting to see all the kind of different angles and all of the different aspects of the play that people take away, and it certainly is different everywhere."
We catch up with Phoebe as the Hamlet cast continue their round the world tour.
Time: 11 minutes 57 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
Phil Brooks: So last time you were here and we spoke was in October…
Phoebe Fildes: Yes!
PB: So it was a long time ago! And since then, you’ve been, well, around the world…
PF: We have! Yeah, probably about, I don’t know, maybe 90 countries or something, since October, so it’s been a whirlwind few months.
PB: And you had a, quite a big stint, I heard, without costumes and set as well, and how did that work out?
PF: We did! It was something we were all sort dreading and anticipating and obsessed about in about equal measure, and we knew it was going to happen at some point, and, we were prepared to play with a limited set in parts of the South Pacific because we were made aware of the fact that there were some planes which couldn’t necessarily take all of our cargo – which, we have a lot; we each carry quite a big trunk that weighs about thirty kilograms as well as our personal stuff. So we made a plan to ditch all of our personal belongings and just take a rucksack for each country, because we were always coming back to ‘base’ in Fiji, so for a few days we kind of went with the basics that we needed – like, a few pairs of underwear and some show make-up – and that was all fine. Unfortunately, when we got to Kiribati we had our personal luggage with us this time, thankfully, but none of our set arrived, not a single ski bag or trunk. So, our hosts and stage managers got on the case immediately and were fantastic, and managed to source the very bare minimum that we needed, i.e. like a drape, to use as our curtain, a drum, and I think that now they even managed to find a recorder to balance out the music a bit. We had our violins and our accordions, so we could play the music. But it was a really fun day, to be honest, for us as actors, because we got the opportunity to go through our own clothing, and see what elements of our own things might match, you know, aspects of each character, and we managed – like, I was playing Guildenstern that evening with Matt as Rosencrantz, so we had quite a lot of fun trying to figure out what we could wear. And on the whole I mean, we actually performed without our set for nearly two weeks, so about five or six shows, and it really was quite a liberating experience not having the confines of like, the boxes to map out each scene, and it really meant that actually, the shapes of the scenes in that period changed dramatically, and even when we got our set back I think that had actually been a really positive thing because it started up a lot of new, ideas really, and new things from different people.
PB: Was it quite nice to almost strip back everything and just have 'the pure story'?
PF: Yeah, I mean, it was brilliant for us, because actually – I mean our set is obviously quite minimal as it is, it’s quite a simple set and enables us to carry it around everywhere – but it was really reassuring because time and time again, the response from the audience was: while initially, they might think ‘Oh what a shame they haven’t got their set with them,’ they always seemed to be struck by how actually, none of that mattered at all, and at the heart of it really was the story. And that’s obviously for us, what we kind of pride ourselves on being able to do: is just go with very little, you know, no kind of, big sound effects or stage lighting, just go very simply and tell the story. So, yeah, that was a really positive outcome, I think.
PB: And what have those audience reactions been like now that you’ve started to go to other areas of the world – I think last time we spoke you were in Africa and were quite surprised at first, about the reactions and comments throughout, they were quite loud and engaged with it.
PF: Yes! Yeah, so um, the sort of South Pacific, actually the fact was, it was really varied, so some – I was really struck by how each island, of which there are many countries that constitute islands in the South Pacific that I’d never even heard of; for example, Tuvalu which is absolutely tiny, almost like an atoll, like a long strip almost right in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean – it was quite and extraordinary descent when we landed there, they have to shut off the road for you to land there, it’s very tiny – I mean, like you have other South Pacific islands which are, for example, Vanuatu, have a real reputation for tourism and they have lots of visitors each year. But each island really does have it’s own identity, which I wasn’t expecting to be so, kind of, clear. So it was very different in each place. So in Vanuatu, we were actually, we were hosted by a theatre company that has been set up there by an English couple, and we watched one of their performances the previous evening which was in Bislama, the language there, so the audience we were performing to there was a really excited, kind of, they’d just been introduced to this sort of way of – their performance was a real, kind of, slapstick comedy – so they were kind of really expecting something high energy and fast-paced and I think they really responded well to our version of Hamlet. Other audiences: some were quite quiet, in parts of the South Pacific, but I couldn’t say that all of the, you know, it really was quite, each one was very unique.
PB: Is there much changing, shifting of the play as you’ve gone on, or is it really kind of set?
PF: Funnily enough, I think actually, probably as a result of us doing a show without the set and the costumes, I think in the last few months, it’s shifted more in other – maybe not in terms of physically, like it would probably look the same-ish – but I think what has really changed is: first off, now were are in a position where I think almost everybody is playing every part that they will play, so I think last time we spoke, there were still people that hadn’t taken on certain roles. So Jen now plays Horatio, which she wasn’t playing before, all of the, Keith, John and Raw all do Claudius/Polonius and the Ghost, and I just think, as a result of us having more kind of, configurations, it really is kind of evolving continually. And I think, as I say, that experience of doing it with limited equipment kind of spouted out a whole new array of creative decisions to be made.
PB: Have your thoughts on Ophelia changed much as well? You, last time we spoke you had just started to get to grips with Horatio, and how that was impacting your thoughts on Ophelia.
PF: Yes! I have, actually one of the biggest challenges, as I’ve taken on Horatio, and my concentration was going in that direction for a while, has been trying to keep, I suppose just trying to keep it fresh really because we’ve been performing it now for about a year, well, nearly a year and a half. And particularly the ‘mad scene,’ I think it’s easy to sink into a rhythm of decisions that you’ve made and actions that you’ve decided to play. And actually, what has been really nice is trying to make a conscious decision to break habits and break patterns, and there’s not really a better scene to do that in than the ‘mad scene’ and we’re able to do something totally different every time. You know, you’re not going to get any instructions from the director saying: don’t do that. But yeah, so, I’m still finding things – interestingly, I think actually John, when John plays Polonius, I mean, everybody’s very different, but I’ve sort of found something slightly different in her relationship with Polonius because of the way John has chosen to play certain scenes, so that kind of tension between being loving and loyal to her father but also feeling a kind of deep resentment and frustration as well, which I don’t think I had there before.
PB: Are there any highlights so far of venues that you’ve been to - you had just started to explore outdoors, town squares and places last time.
PF: Yes, yes. Those are still some of my favourite venues; the ones that feel kind of like it’s just been erected sort of somewhere you know, very, in a communal area where people can walk in, walk out, very much kind of ‘for the people’ there locally. And one of my favourites on the most recent leg was probably the one in Tuvalu, which is the one I was talking to you about. The venue were we performed was almost, it’s a kind of like a sort of town hall, I suppose – it wouldn’t really constitute a town hall as we know it – without sides, so it has a roof, and it’s next to well, I suppose what is an air strip, but is really just a main road that they close for when the plane lands, but it felt like the absolute epicentre of the community. I mean, it’s where, during the days, people kind of gather, during the evenings the children run around, and everybody is there, kind of, that’s sort of the gathering point. And it was really brilliant to be playing there because as soon as we landed and everybody saw all of our belongings, because it’s such a small place, people were coming up to us and saying ‘Where from, what are you doing?’ And there was this real buzz about the show because we were kind of, we were being welcomed to their, sort of, the area that they inhabit day to day. So that was probably my favourite because of the sense of community of it that evening.
PB: Have you found that different parts of the story seem to resonate with different places wherever you are; do different bits seem to be quite relevant to those audiences?
PF: Yeah, absolutely. I think actually, funnily enough I remember Bruce saying, when he was playing Fortinbras, in, way back in Ukraine for him that resonated. I mean, with the political – the political parts of the play seem to sort of vibrate so strongly in places that have either in recent years, or decades ago, or however long ago, have gone through similar kind of, trying to expose that corruption that’s so prevalent. And, it’s certainly true, in parts of Africa there were parts of the play – and I’d never considered it in this light – but where people saw the play as a comment on women’s rights. So, a lot of the women in Africa felt like the play was really about Gertrude, and how she was treated by those around her, and about her right to remarry. Which is fascinating, because it’s just really endlessly interesting to see all the kind of different angles and all of the different aspects of the play that people take away, and it certainly is different everywhere.
PB: What would you say your biggest surprise of the tour so far is?
PF: I don’t know, I suppose, I feel like I’m harping on about when we lost our set, but that for me, was the biggest surprise. Not that we lost it, because I knew it would happen some time, but I think the biggest surprise was just how well, as a group, we were able to enjoy it. And I think I hadn’t appreciated that we’d got to a stage where we know the play so well, and we’ve inhabited it for such a long time, that, actually, something like that could be a positive thing, and be quite liberating rather than feeling limiting and disappointing.
PB: Well, it’s like, ‘you’re sort of stuck with this…’
PF: Yeah, it’s about totally the opposite, actually. It felt, kind of, quite uplifting.
PB: Is it, I guess this is the longest time you’ve done one single production?
PF: Yes. It’s been a very – oh I see, with the production! Yeah, yes it is, yeah.
PB: Is it quite challenging to keep it distinctive, I assume because you’re rotating parts so much [it's easier]?
PF: Yes. I mean, it certainly is challenging, and I think it will continue to be challenging for the next sort of six months to try and keep that – it’s trying to keep in mind, really, that you’re performing to new audiences and new places, but more importantly, just people that are seeing it for the first time. What certainly helps is rotating parts. And I think that really is a blessing, because you don’t know before each night what’s going to happen, and what knew things you might find. And that is really special.
PB: It’s like it’s everybody’s first time, every time…
PF: Yeah, and in a way, it’s kind of your first time each night because there’s always a different variable you’re exchanging.
PB: Where are you off to next?
PF: Tomorrow morning we go to Shanghai. Actually this leg, I think it will be quite nice for us because, we’re spending a little bit longer in each place. So the last leg, because of the nature of the islands, we had to move on very quickly. But this time, I think we’re spending a week in Beijing, which for us is a hugely long time. We’re going to Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and I think that’s it, actually, we’re only actually visiting about twelve – oh, we may have to check that, maybe you might need to edit that one out – but about twelve countries I think, in the space of seven weeks, whereas in the last leg, we did about twenty five in ten. So it was much more rushed.
PB: A very short little…
PF: Yes. Yeah.
PB: Wonderful, thank you very much!