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Rediscovering Hamlet

Director Sean Holmes reflects on the irony and absurdity that is fundamental to his production of Hamlet

7 minute read

Why Hamlet… and why now? I ask Sean Holmes, who directs the new production of the play that opens in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in January. His answers were unexpected.

“It’s not something I previously had a burning desire to do. Perhaps part of my problem was that the planning always seemed to revolve around the question of who would play the title role and everything else had to slot in around that choice – which doesn’t seem to me a particularly interesting starting point.”

Then surprisingly: “I didn’t know the play all that well: of course, I’ve seen a few productions which I’ve liked over the years,” – he singles out a radical rethink by Thomas Ostermeier at the Barbican in 2011 and Michelle Terry’s version at the Globe in 2018 for “not being stuck in reverence”– “but a lot of my ideas were based on hearsay and half remembered passages that didn’t all link together.”

A director speaks to an actor who has his back facing the camera

Sean Holmes has most recently directed an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as part of the Globe’s Summer 2021 season. Photographer: Johan Persson

During lockdown, Sean’s eldest son was struggling over the play for A-level English and so he offered to go through the text scene by scene with him. It turned into a close-reading seminar and Sean emerged from it feeling that “I had discovered for the first time just how amazingly good it is, at so many levels, from the thriller upwards. “So when it came to planning the winter season, I was able to tell Michelle [Terry] that I’d fallen in love with the play, and we decided that it would also fit with our commitment to work through the winter with the same ensemble cast that had been with us for  A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night through the summer. Working with a team of actors who know each other well means that you can get so much further because you’re not starting at square one and everyone is just so much braver and less defensive.”

“I’d fallen in love with the play, and it fit with our commitment to work with the same ensemble cast that had been with us through the summer”

Three actors stand in rehearsals

Surprisingly, it was helping his son with his A-Level studying that ignited Sean’s passion for Hamlet. Photographer: Johan Persson

Neither a ‘seasoned tragedian nor an obvious matinée idol’, George Fouracres is an intriguing choice for the role of Hamlet. Photographer: Helen Maybanls

What also stimulated Sean’s creative juices was the unique challenge of staging the play in the intimate atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. “All my productions acknowledge the presence of an audience in some way, and this is a room in which you can bring the audience into the same space as the play. That’s something vital to [the character of ] Hamlet, who spends so much time exposing what is going on inside his head.” But there’s no shying away from the interesting question of who gets to play the Prince, and Sean has plumped for George Fouracres. It’s an intriguing choice as Fouracres is neither a seasoned tragedian nor an obvious matinée idol. Hailing from the Black Country with the trace of a Midlands accent, he studied at Cambridge and became part of its stand-up comedy scene, followed by well received appearances at Edinburgh Fringe and contributions to radio and television shows such as Harry Hill’s Tea Time.

At the Globe, he has appeared in Sean’s productions of Twelfth Night as Andrew Aguecheek and as Flute and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he proved blessed with what Sean calls “a natural instinct for talking to and engaging with an audience”. “When I was discussing my thoughts for the project with the company, I asked them how they would feel about George playing the title role and they were all immediately enthusiastic. Comedy doesn’t function as an add-on or light relief to this play, it’s intermeshed with the tragedy, and they know that George will be able to dig into the irony and absurdity that is so fundamental to Hamlet’s character.”

“Comedy doesn’t function as an add-on or light relief to this play, it’s intermeshed with the tragedy”

But why Hamlet now? “We discovered when we did our adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in September a palpable hunger among audiences to be spoken to in ways that aren’t mediated by a television screen. We’re coming out of such a dangerous and strange and claustrophobic time and, while I’m the last person who would want to do a pandemic production, I think one has to acknowledge that we’re all in a fragile and disoriented state, and that the theatre can be useful to us now as a place to readjust. “[Playwright and director] Edward Bond once said to me that great plays allow us to enter into psychosis without going mad ourselves. We feel we are being spied on, that the world is unsustainable, that there are no answers to all the crises we face. So much angst and confusion are rich things to play Hamlet through.

Holmes noticed a palpable hunger among audiences to be spoken to in ways that aren’t mediated by a television screen after his production of Metamorphoses. Photographer: Helen Maybanks

“We feel we are being spied on, that the world is unsustainable, that there are no answers to all the crises we face”

“As I’ve been reading through the play, I keep writing ‘why?’ in the margins of my copy. For instance, in standard revenge tragedies, the obstacles to the revenger achieving his goal are purely material and physical. Not in this case: by the normal code, Hamlet is failing by not murdering Claudius. But why do we think that? Isn’t his reluctance quite reasonable? Why doesn’t he murder Claudius? You might equally ask, why should he? “His mother seems happily married, Claudius seems like a pretty good ruler, even if there’s a lot of tense surveillance at Elsinore. If the ghost hadn’t appeared and told Hamlet what he does, there would be no play. In the original folk tale the play draws on, Hamlet pretends to be mad so as not to be killed by Claudius. But Shakespeare doesn’t follow that idea. Claudius isn’t hostile to Hamlet: far from it, he seems to regard him as his natural successor. So things at the play’s beginning are really quite stable. It’s Hamlet’s madness, whether real or not, that unsettles and infects everyone else.”

An actor holds another actors face closely

‘It’s Hamlet’s madness, whether real or not, that unsettles and infects everyone else’. Photographer: Johan Persson

Working with Cambridge academic Zoë Svendsen as his Dramaturg, Sean is exercised by the question of how to cut the play – the play running in the First Folio recension at over four hours. “We need to get it down to about three hours with an interval, not least because of the hard nature of the seating at the Playhouse! “It’s a really sensitive issue. We want to keep Fortinbras, because I think it’s vital to have that outer circle perspective on what is going on. I don’t think we can get rid of Yorick and the gravedigger, because everyone will expect them to be there. What we are realising is that Shakespeare put everything there for a reason, and you can’t take out a strand without threatening the entire structure.” Sean has six weeks to work through all the challenges – “Five weeks in the rehearsal room, plus a week off over Christmas to think about everything” – but his actors are already onside. Peter Bourke, who was cast as Oberon in Sean’s Globe production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has worked with him frequently at the Lyric Hammersmith, says: “Of every director I have worked with in the past 50 years since leaving Rada, Sean is my favourite. He gives you just enough rope but doesn’t let you hang yourself, always making it fun and democratic, everyone’s contribution
being equal and considered.”

For Sean, what matters, however, is very simple – communicating. “I suppose at some unconscious level I direct all my productions with myself in mind as the ideal audience member – is this something that would excite or bore me? But I hope that doesn’t end up being solipsistic. I certainly want audiences to come out of this Hamlet feeling exhilarated.”


Hamlet  plays as part of our Winter 2021/22 season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 21 January to 9 April 2022. 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Globe magazine and is one of the benefits of being a Member of Shakespeare’s Globe.

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